World’s Finest Battle to be my Role Model

Who’s the better role model, Batman or Superman? This question may be painfully irrelevant to your life, but it’s integral to mine. These two great heroes represent two approaches to a life’s work, even though they share similar goals. They’re my version of the fox and the hedgehog, or maybe each has found a different way to be the fox.

Superman wants to protect Metropolis, and by extension Earth. In order to do so, he performs a variety of actions using a variety of skills. Few tasks are impossible for someone with super-strength, flight, x-ray eyes, and wintry breath. He’s also smart as a whip. As Clark Kent, intrepid reporter, he obtains the information needed so Superman can be at the right place at the right time. Journalism is a great job for Superman, because he can move from one subject to another when needed. Although he’s often pitted against universe-level threats, no task is too small. Superman will prevent car accidents and rescue kittens. He makes Metropolis secure, but he also cares for its well-being. Superman is an illustration of unlimited power giving unlimited effort, without compromise, to improving everyone’s lives.

Batman has a similar goal. He wants to protect Gotham City. But Batman’s more of a one-issue guy. Most versions of Bats don’t give a damn about the poor kitties–crime seems to be the unrelenting focus. You get the feeling Superman cares about the environment. Batman? He owns a giant corporation and filled a cavern with computer equipment. But the narrow emphasis on crimefighting paradoxically requires Batman to have a wide scope. He’s the world’s greatest detective, and one of its best human fighters. He knows Gotham’s physical layout, its population, its politics, and its economy better than any historian. Just like Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne has taken a career path that ably assists his goals. Business is about integrating myriad products and services under one brand and marshaling intelligence to predict future outcomes. The goal of bringing down the Joker et al spurs Batman to learn and prepare.

Unwittingly, I think I’ve been following Superman’s model. I flit from one subject to the other. This has been a serious problem for me, since I am not Superman. When I was a teenager, I would study architecture for a while, then modern art, then music–and I’d move from one to the other quickly. This must have infuriated my parents, who encouraged me to pursue new interests, but must have gotten tired of my lack of focus. Couldn’t I make up my mind and settle on, say, crimefighting?

In college, a favorite teacher could leap tall subjects with a single bound. I’ve done my level best to do the same, but it’s not working. I wasn’t fit to touch the hem of my peers’ garments. Many have hopped from school to school or career to career and made it look easy. So I redouble my efforts, and in the process, retrench. Right now I’ve given up on grad school (in part because I couldn’t focus on one subject), and I’m trying to do a million things at once: find a job, improve my writing, learn economics, study style and usage manuals, pick up film grammar, and create comics. I’m doing an ugly job of it, and I’m worried it’s turning me into a Lex Luthor: I resent the Supermen among us, and lock myself in foolish contests to eventually outdo them.*

*by the way, this totally sounds like the kind of argument Lex Luthor would make, which means I should probably re-examine it.

Maybe Batman is the better role model. He’s a real human being, albeit a talented one, who has a clearly defined yet ambitious focus. Crimefighting serves as his “in” to a diverse knowledge base. I wonder if having that end goal serves as a better motivation for acquiring that knowledge. For instance, I could fumble around with microfiche throughout college and grad school, but I never really learned how to manipulate it with precision until I wanted to examine some old comic strips. I bet it’s the same way with Batman: if he keeps crime alley in the front of his mind, he can develop an immunity to the strongest poisons.

Of course, taking on Batman as a role model provides a whole other set of challenges. Batman is not friendly. Sure, he’s trying to be a walking deterrent, but his standoffish demeanor is also fueled by his intensity. Batman also seems to inhabit some morally grey areas. Usually things turn out ok, but in Batman’s world, people also become disabled. People die. (Of course, a good lot of them come back to life.) These tragedies reflect Batman’s character flaws as well as the brutality of his enemies. Lastly, I’m worried about what happens when you dedicate yourself to Just One Thing. If trying to be like Superman turns you into Lex Luthor, what if trying to be like Batman turns you into The Joker?

Of course this whole argument could be off base. DC characters tend to shape their destiny, and the World’s, with relative ease. Superboy punched his way out of obsolescence. The Flash outran death! In the Marvel universe, characters are much more in thrall of universe-level distortions, and the big planners (whether they be Professor X, Nick Fury, or Dr. Doom) tend to fall down a lot, and learn to work with the given situation instead of shaping the future. Or maybe I should become an adult and stop looking up to comic book characters. Just kidding there. But I don’t want to be innocent bystander #2 in my own life.


4 Responses to “World’s Finest Battle to be my Role Model”

  1. 1 Sam October 2, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    hey luke,

    i can’t say i agree with you that the difference between superman and batman has to do with single-mindedness. they’re both pretty single-minded. superman does, after all, fight a never-ending battle.

    i used to think the difference was killing, but batman doesn’t kill either (or even use guns). sometimes writers try to make it seem like it’s corporal punishment, when they have superman make weak speeches about disapproving of batman’s “methods.” but superman will dish it out just as easily if mongul shows up. a case could be made at one time that superman was more of an inspiring figure, meant to set an example for others, while batman was more of a get-it-done type who didn’t care what others thought of him. but writers have even muddied those waters lately by increasing the size of batman’s “family,” from alfred to nightwing to robin to batgirl to oracle, etc. etc.

    so, ultimately, i think the issue is an attitudinal one. both fight single-mindedly for their causes, but i think batman’s attitude is a kind of camus-style heroic battle against futility and absurdity. superman, on the other hand, has a kantian faith in progress (also describable as a religious faith in redemption). i think this has to do with the relative roles their childhood losses play for them: superman’s takes place before he is really conscious, and his whole life thus takes the form of a second chance or rebirth, while batman’s transfigures him into a pessimistic creature. i thought it was interesting that you didn’t mention the loss of batman’s parents in your reflections.

    yours in excessive meditation on comic book characters,

    • 2 againstacedia October 3, 2009 at 4:17 am

      Yeah, I dropped the ball on the issue of motivation. Maybe this is what truly separates me from both of them.

      I had hoped that the BATMAN R.I.P. storyline would involve Batman coming to terms with the killing of his parents; he’d be able to “rest in peace” regarding his parents’ death, but carry on fighting crime. I like the idea that Batman would exist even if his folks hadn’t been killed. Instead it drove us deeper into Wayne lore, which has its own rewards.

      How does Superman reconcile his faith in progress with the manner in which Krypton’s destruction came about? The Kryptonian faith in the future proved to be hubristic, and Superman’s own setbacks tend to occur when he is overconfident. Of course, hubris is Lex Luthor’s classic flaw as well. By fighting Luthor, Superman is fighting that tendency in humanity. Maybe. On a more down-to-earth level, by fighting a scientist, Superman ensures that Earth doesn’t become a wholly technocratic civilization like Krypton.

      Hmm, there might be something oedipal to Superman’s fights with Luthor, who can stand in for Jor-El. This comes out occasionally in Batman too, since a good portion of his villains are medical doctors with world-changing aspirations. But Batman’s relationship to his father is more tragic, because he can never heal others like his father did. No matter how much money he donates to Arkham, his enemies/patients aren’t getting any better.

  2. 4 Eric October 2, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    I think that just asking this question takes you out of the DC universe and into Marvel circa 1967 or so. but that’s probably not helpful.

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