Saturday, 14 July 2018

Can Bruce Wayne Be Happily Married To Selina Kyle And Still Be Good At What He Does?

It's been a little over a week now since Batman #50 came out and hopefully everyone reading this post has had a chance to read it. I didn't spoil the plot twist of Batman #50 in part because I wanted to give fans a chance to read the issue and judge the story for themselves, and in part because the plot twist centred around an age-old question that I felt deserved its own post.

If you still haven't Batman #50 and don't want to be spoiled, this is your turning back point as I can't progress with the rest of this post without discussing the plot twist that prevented the wedding from taking place.

As detailed in Batman #50, Bruce and Selina did not go forward with their wedding. Bruce showed up to their proverbial "altar" but Selina did not. The reasoning, Selina gave, was that Bruce deep down was still a "hurt child" who transformed his pain into hope and felt she couldn't take that away from him.

On that same train of thought, Selina rationalised that if she "helps that lonely boy with the lonely eyes" she "kills that engine." She "kills the Batman." She "kills the person who saves everyone." She then concludes that "to save the world, heroes make sacrifices" and that her "sacrifice" is her love: Bruce himself. The last page then revealed that everything leading up to the wedding--including Selina leaving Bruce at the altar--was all part of Bane's plan to "break the bat."

My thoughts on how I feel about this particular "plot twist" aside, what this conclusion is inevitably revealing is Dan DiDio's earlier New 52 philosophy that superheroes can't have (or shouldn't have?) personal lives because they "sacrifice" to keep the world safe. Selina's letter to Bruce in Batman #50 is very much written with that train of thought. However, this logic is also very short-sighted and limits story potential. At the very worst, this philosophy demonstrates an unwillingness to change and meaningfully grow as a storyteller.

What DiDio described as an example of "confounding expectations" in his DC Nation #2 letter column is actually an example of maintaining the status quo in a very predictable way. Subverting our expectations would've entailed going through with the wedding and more meaningfully exploring the challenges that come with being Batman and Catwoman as a married couple. From an entirely narrative standpoint, that would've actually been something new and exciting to see.

Reminding the reader that Bruce and Selina can "never truly be happy together" has always been the status quo for the versions of the characters who have passed for the "main versions" for decades. From pre-Crisis Earth-1 to post-Crisis to post-Flashpoint, Bruce and Selina were always--for one reason or another--prevented from truly achieving happiness together. It's not new, it's not thought-provoking, and it does live up to fan expectations. We now get to the main question of this post.

Can Bruce Wayne truly be happy being married to Selina Kyle and still be good at what he does?

In short? Yes. He can. We know this for a fact because we've already seen twice how a married Bruce Wayne can still transform that happiness in productive ways that still fuel his passion for justice and still be good at it. To see what a married Bruce Wayne does when he is allowed to be happy alongside the woman he loves, we'll have to take a trip across the multiverse to the world of Earth-2, the version of the DC Universe that did get it right.


PRE-CRISIS

The very first version of Batman that appeared in comics made his debut in Detective Comics #27 in a story called "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate" in 1939. We met Batman's iconic love interest and famous femme fatale, Catwoman, a year later in Batman #1, which also featured the first appearance of the Joker.

The versions of Batman and Catwoman that were published during DC's actual Golden Age were not at all like the characters we know in the modern comics. While the modern version of Bruce Wayne has been depicted as the angry brooding loner for three decades, the Golden Age original had a more nuanced personality.

The Golden Age version of Bruce still managed to enjoy life, still pursued meaningful relationships with other people, and was even at one point happily engaged to a young woman named Julie Madison. He also met and employed his butler Alfred (last name Beagle) much later in his life, and still raised an 8-year-old Dick Grayson like a son in addition to partnering up with him as Batman and Robin.

The Golden Age Bruce was an all-around guy not limited by his trauma and embraced all aspects of life, including romance. All of this factored in the way he connected with Selina Kyle from the first time he met her on that yacht in Batman #1 in 1940, to every encounter they've had since. A spark was ignited between them from the very beginning, and yes, Bruce did notice how lovely her eyes were. But more than that, Bruce was intrigued by how very cunning Selina was as Catwoman to the point where he wished she would use her skills to help him fight crime instead of committing crime. He even looked forward to running into her (which always put a smile on his face) and even recruited her help him with a case on occasion.

On Selina's side of the equation, the character has always been depicted as complex since her first appearance, and was never a cookie-cutter villain. She always toed that fine line between being "the good girl" and "the bad girl" but never at the expense of vulnerable people. This very grey space that Selina inhabited always kept Bruce and Dick guessing at what her motives were. It also gave Bruce the hope that she could one day change for the better, which is not a hope he had for his other rogues like the Joker.

The Golden Age version of Selina even often questioned her lifestyle choices as Catwoman. There were times when she was depicted reflecting on the longterm consequences of her actions, but at the same time was determined to maintain a level of visibility in a society and era that was too often hostile towards women. She wasn't going to be "the good girl" who behaved the way others wanted her to behave and wanted to achieve excitement and happiness on her own terms. She was careful to limit her crime career to theft only and often showed that she was against murder.

Towards the end of DC's Golden Age, Selina got to a point where she wanted to move on from her life as Catwoman and Bruce was more than happy to help her achieve that goal. Originally, Catwoman disclosed that she was once a flight attendant named Selina Kyle (the first time she disclosed her real name) who acquired amnesia following a plane crash she survived. Selina then evaded a prison sentence by helping Batman and Robin apprehend anorther criminal and went on to open a pet store. During this period, Selina would use her experience and skills she acquired as Catwoman to help Bruce capture other criminals.

By the mid-1950s, DC started phasing out many of their Golden Age characters and replaced them with brand new characters who would come to define DC's Silver Age. Batman and Detective Comics continued to see publication during this transition, but it was not until the 1960s that the Golden Age versions of these characters were established as separate characters from their Silver Age counterparts. With the establishment of the multiverse in 1961, the modern DC Universe that was started in the mid-1950s became known as Earth-1 and the old DC Universe that started in the late 1930s became Earth-2. In the latter Earth, the heroes aged naturally with time and were depicted as older than the Earth-1 heroes.

It was not until 1967 that we first learned that Bruce had entered semi-retirement as Batman and only got back in the cape and cowl during an actual crisis. We didn't get a follow-up to his life until 1977 when his daughter with Selina Kyle made her comic debut as the Huntress in DC Super-Stars #17.

In the original telling of Helena Wayne's origin story, Bruce and Selina were depicted has having retired their Batman and Catwoman identities and settled for living a normal life after they married and became parents. Selina went on to establish close relationships with Clark Kent and Lois Lane, while Bruce exchanged his vigilante lifestyle for one of philanthropy. He later continued his fight against crime as police commissioner upon the retirement of his old friend, James Gordon.

A 1983 story in Brave and the Bold further elaborated on the circumstances that led the Golden Age versions of Bruce and Selina to marry, and it boiled down to them both reaching the same conclusion in the respective lives. They were both getting older and didn't want to live out the rest of their lives alone. They wanted to have the one thing they both lost in the first place: family.

The marriage was never about Bruce and Selina giving up who they were as people, but about reclaiming the identities--the sides of themselves--that they lost to tragic circumstances. In the case of Selina Kyle, it was revealed that the real reason she became Catwoman was in response to a previous abusive marriage, and created the identity as a way of preventing herself from feeling helpless ever again. She never intended for this lifestyle to last in the longterm, which is why she fabricated the amnesia story. She wanted a way out of that life and start over.

In the case of Bruce, did the decision to marry "break the engine" that is the core of his character? No, absolutely not. What it did was take what people already knew and loved about Bruce as a character and took it in a new direction. The decision to marry was all about Bruce realising he could still work to make Gotham a better, safer place without the Batman and was all about reclaiming the person that has always been Bruce Wayne. It was all about character progression for Bruce.

After marrying, Bruce transformed the passions he once indulged as Batman in a new and constructive manner: it led him to a life of philanthropy and later continued his mission as police commissioner. Bruce continued to do the things that always drove him, but did so with a different outlook on life. Instead of obsessing over his own pain and suffering, Bruce learned to find value in life itself. By the time Bruce passed away at an advanced age, he was no longer angry about the way his life started out, but was very happy about the way that it ended.

This was one interpretation of where an older, married Bruce Wayne could realistically be if he was allowed to be happy, and it didn't lead to him becoming unrecognisable. His story still concluded in a way that felt organic and logical for his character. But what about a younger married version of Bruce Wayne who continued to be Batman? Well, guess what? The post-Flashpoint version of Earth-2 provided an answer to that question as well.


POST-FLASHPOINT

When DC rebooted their universe with Flashpoint in 2011, a new version of Earth-2 emerged, complete with new reimagined versions of DC's Golden Age heroes, including Batman and Catwoman.

Despite the fact that these versions of Bruce and Selina did not have the fully developed history that their original Golden Age predecessors had, they still kept their more significant developments intact. They still married and stayed married until death literally did them apart, just like last time. They also still had a daughter named Helena Wayne who still became the Huntress as an adult.

What did differ from the previous Earth-2 continuity were the details surrounding these significant events. Whereas the original Golden Age Bruce and Selina married when they were 40 and 35 years old respectively, the post-Flashpoint versions married when they were still in their early 20s as implied in Earth-2: Annual #2 by Tom Taylor and Robson Rocha. They also became parents to Helena when they were still very young and continued to protect Gotham as Batman and Catwoman as opposed to retiring those identities. They even raised their daughter to be their sidekick, Robin.

While these versions of Bruce and Selina were killed off very early on in their lives (they were in their 30s this time when they died), the few stories that we did get with them alive still depicted them as a happy functional couple who were still competent superheroes. In the "Cross World" story arc of Greg Pak and Jae Lee's Batman/Superman series, the Earth-2 version of Gotham was a much cleaner, less dangerous place than the Prime Earth counterpart. This was implied to be a major accomplishment of the married Bruce and Selina. The Earth-2 version of Gotham even had a theme park named Arkham Asylum as opposed to an actual insane asylum that temporarily housed the city's more dangerous criminals. In the Earth-2 version of Gotham, when dangerous criminals like the Joker were locked up, they stayed locked up.

In the few flashback sequences that provided insight into Helena Wayne's childhood, we saw that she was well educated academically and was very thoroughly trained in combat. It was also shown that Selina was more responsible for teaching Helena all of her skills she would later use as the Huntress, effectively demonstrating both Selina's prowess as a crimefighter as well as a healthy relationship with her daughter. It was also Selina who encouraged Helena's first outing as Robin, which helped her gain the experience she needed to later assist her father as Batman and later fight crime alone as the Huntress.

More than anything, the post-Flashpoint versions of the Earth-2 Bruce and Selina provided a glimpse of how the Prime Earth versions could be depicted as a married couple. It showed that these two characters could marry young and still be fully functional as Batman and Catwoman, and be more effective crimefighters because of it. In the case of Earth-2, marriage did not "break the machine" that is Batman or Catwoman, it actually made them stronger people.

So where does this leave the Prime Earth couple? Well, sadly this was a wasted opportunity, especially for fans of these versions of the characters who wanted to see this kind of story unfold for them. While Batman writer Tom King is not entirely to blame for the way his story arc played out (remember that as a freelancer, he doesn't get to call the shots, just pitch the ideas) the story that fans ultimately got post-Rebirth was underwhelmingly anticlimactic and did not do the characters any favours.

The 50 first issues of Rebirth Batman missed an opportunity to more meaningfully develop a history between Bruce and Selina for the current continuity, and especially failed to develop them into a more organic couple leading them to the climactic moment fans wanted to see with issue #50: an actual wedding. The excuses given for why the marriage didn't go through is more reflective of the braintrust behind DC Comics way more than it is a reflection of the characters themselves.

Again, the past and present have consistently shown that a marriage between Bruce and Selina can be done without subtracting what people love about them as characters. The post-Flashpoint Earth-2 in particular showed exactly the kind of story a young married Batman and Catwoman would look like and still be recognisable as the people we know. It even showed that there was still room for more story to be told.

The fact that even something as recent as the post-Flashpoint Earth-2 laid to rest the ludicrous idea that a happy Bruce "breaks the engine" of his character means that the decision to fall back on this line of reasoning speaks more to laziness and a lack of vision than actual logic.

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