Batman follows Superman into the Ferguson mess
People die every day in Gotham City, the fictional hive of corruption where Batman patrols the rooftops. But not until Wednesday did the Dark Knight find himself investigating a black teenager in a hoodie shot dead by a frightened white police officer, let alone wondering about his own indirect role in the boy’s death.And DC has exhibited institutionalized hostility to police, for all the wrong reasons. I'm guessing they even know that Brown attacked Wilson, and are going along with distorted visions anyway.
The latest issue of DC Comics’ flagship Batman series throws itself headfirst into the agonizing conversations roiling America more than a year after Ferguson officer Darren Wilson killed 18-year old Michael Brown. The globally iconic superhero confronts racialized police brutality and its intersection with urban poverty and gentrification – problems Batman comes to realize he exacerbates in his secret identity as billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne.
Comics critics say they are hard pressed to remember Batman ever addressing institutional racism and its socio-economic dimensions as bluntly as this in the character’s 75-year history. While police corruption has long been a feature of Gotham – even showing up on the eponymous Fox TV adaptation about to enter its second season – it it is rarely shown to disproportionately impact black people.While I haven't read every single Batman tale in history, I'm sure that's not accurate either. There were probably some stories in the 1970s that dealt with race relations, at a time when the Comics Code was being relaxed to make it easier. And the Guardian's distorted reality again: Martin attacked Zimmerman, forcing the latter to defend himself from the former.
Yet Batman #44, a flashback story, begins with the blunt image of a dead black boy, his body left “for the crows”, as the narration reads, resonant of Michael Brown in Ferguson. He wears a hooded sweatshirt, as did Trayvon Martin before George Zimmerman killed the 17-year old. What begins as A Simple Case – the title of the issue – becomes a meditation on the meaning of a rich, white vigilante who attempts to solve intractable urban problems by beating up bad guys.
The part about Bruce Wayne beating up baddies sounds fishy. Are they suggesting there's something wrong with that at the same time they uphold the negative take on police and law enforcement?
“This issue is meant to be a thesis about what our Batman is,” lead writer Scott Snyder told the Guardian.The name of the officer sounds like it was conceived deliberately to make the character sound like a coward. And it also sounds like Snyder's implying Bruce is to blame for failing to develop the neighborhood in time.
“We’ve tried to be pretty relentlessly on-point about him being a symbol of inspiration in the face of tremendous fear, as opposed to a symbol of punishment, or a symbol of revenge, taking the city away from criminals. Here is where he begins to learn [the limits of] the methods that he thought would work: finding a criminal, making an example of the criminal, throwing the criminal in jail … Instead, what he has to learn is that the problems that he’s facing in today’s city are much more humbling, are much more complicated.”
Most controversially, Snyder’s story shows 15-year-old Peter Duggio shot in the stomach by Gotham police veteran Ned Howler. Duggio is shown frightened, emerging from a fight in his father’s bodega with a local gang, and before he can respond to Howler’s demand to lie down, the officer mortally wounds him.
But the story also points a finger at Batman’s unstated assumptions – those that animate the character, and those that animate the metaphor of the superhero crimefighter. The conflict over the bodega boiled over, Peter’s cousin tells Batman, “once Bruce Wayne announced he was gonna develop the neighborhood”. Suddenly, Batman must confront the hubris of his mission to save Gotham, as his focus on individual and not structural answers set into motion the events that led to Howler killing Peter.
Snyder said that during the winter he came up with the idea of addressing the intersection of police brutality and gentrification during the series’s current story arc, in which Gotham police commissioner Jim Gordon takes over as Batman. News reports from Ferguson and Staten Island, New York, where police choked Eric Garner to death, helped inspire the story: “If we were going to do an issue that dealt with potent problems that people face in cities that are reflected fictitiously in Gotham, then we want to really put our money where our mouth was and explore something that’s extremely resonant right now, and, I think, tricky, murky waters.”Oh, it's tricky and murky, alright. The paper's predictably ignored the exact facts about the case, which revealed that he had asthma and heart disease, and Pantaleo was using a "submission hold". That isn't saying the police are blameless, but more accurate research would've been much better.
For help, Snyder turned to Brian Azzarello, whose acclaimed 100 Bullets saga established him as one of comics’ best noir writers. Azzarello said he sought to sharpen the comic’s points about gentrification.Well here's a challenging query: what if that's partly, if not entirely, because the residents were just living on welfare and not working to earn enough to ensure they could get around at ease? If you don't work to earn a living, it's no wonder you could ultimately find yourself downed so easily.
“This thing is such a ripple, the way lives are affected by gentrification. On one hand, yes, you’re cleaning up this area, you’re making it more livable for people. But you’re not saying anything about the people that live there,” said the Chicago-based Azzarello, who remembered how the 2011 redevelopment of the city’s Cabrini Green housing projects left residents “scattered all over the city, just uprooting them, and they had no choice in the matter because they had no money.
“And if you have no money, you have no voice. And we definitely raised that [in the comic],” Azzarello said.
However Fowler, the police officer who kills an unarmed teenager, doesn’t find himself on the receiving end of Batman’s famous rage. Snyder said depicting Batman punching out a fearful officer risked undermining the purpose of a comic book about social problems, while having the ultimate hero of the broader arc be the police commissioner opened up narrative space to address racialised police violence.What's infuriating is that they take all the MSM reports at face value, and it sure is strange why they won't let readers form their own answers and opinions about whether Darren Wilson is innocent, and Michael Brown guilty. However, it's possible their not showing Batman giving the policeman a beating will turn off the readers they're allegedly trying to appeal to.
“Of course you want Batman to beat this officer up, and be like, ‘How could you?’ But the point of the issue is that wouldn’t solve the problem. Batman throwing the officer off a roof, or throwing the officer in jail, it wouldn’t get to the heart of the matter at all. And that’s the thing I think is ultimately infuriating,” Snyder said.
Azzarello said he preferred the story to “raise the questions and then leave it to the reader to form their own answers and opinions”.
There was once a time when stories with political bents were handled with less cynicism. But today, it's very different, all turned out by writers who just can't wait a few years and then write about these issues when better research could be gathered.