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The Perfect Impermanence of Batman

The Perfect Impermanence of Batman

By Meg Downey Thursday, March 21st, 2019

Eighty years of Batman is a momentous accomplishment, but it also reminds us of a question that comic readers have been asking for generations—with so many stories over the years, do any of them truly matter?

Superhero comics are a funny thing. They've been around forever—in Batman's case, eighty years—and as next Wednesday is about to remind us, they're approaching the point where issue #1000s are actually being released. Now, a thousand installments of anything is a pretty astronomical number, but a thousand issues of a comic… That’s a truly intimidating amount of story. And it's all, essentially, starring one character. One guy, a thousand or more stories. Eighty years.

Crazy, right?

It's not really a secret that comic series are able to reach such absurd numbers by getting a little creative with things like time. Batman as a character may be entering his eighth decade, but in the fiction, Bruce Wayne has barely aged a day. And he never will, really, unless he has to for one adventure or another (here’s looking at you, DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and BATMAN BEYOND). Birthdays may pass, he may enter and exit relationships and new Robins may join the quickly growing pantheon. He may even die at some point—naturally or unnaturally—but even that will eventually be undone, one way or another. Sooner or later, Batman will be back to the same spry crimefighter we know and love. Batman will always be Batman. That much you can count on.

Now, there's a temptation, upon learning that rule, to feel...a little cheated, maybe, or frustrated. It's easy to feel like nothing matters in superhero stories because nothing sticks around. Dead characters come back. Marriages and children are retconned. Why be invested in anything when you know it won't last? Why care?

Of course, there's no objectively correct answer to that question, but if you'll let me, I'd like to take a second to argue the answer I've come up with. It may not be perfect, and it may not be your answer, but it's the one that's gotten me through more comics than I can count, even when the "it'll just be undone anyway" voice in my head gets louder and louder.

It goes like this: Nothing is permanent in superhero comics, but instead of meaning that nothing matters, it means that everything does.

Each moment Batman experiences, or has experienced, from his first appearance back in 1939, becomes part of his bigger story in one way or another, even after the slate is wiped clean. Superheroes are unique in that way. They're the sum of their parts, the whole of their legacy, even when those parts are neatly shuffled off the table. Each time something happens to Bruce Wayne, we learn a little more about who he is and what he stands for. Each event he experiences informs the way we see and understand him.

Take a story like NO MAN’S LAND, for example. It may not have "happened" in the Rebirth-era DC Universe, but reading it still tells us volumes about just how Bruce handles a crisis of that magnitude. It tells us how he handles new heroes appearing in Gotham, the passing of mantles and teaming up with enemies like Bane. Stories like FINAL CRISIS are about temporary death, but they're also about the bigger legacy of Batman as a whole. It doesn't matter how long Bruce stays dead, it matters that we work through what that death means in that specific moment.

These stories aren't about the end result, they're about the process of getting there. The permanence of the consequences has always been the least important part. We don't have the Batman we know and love today without eighty years of stories, and we don't have eighty years of stories without these fleeting moments. They're what make Batman Batman. And every page, every panel, every line of dialogue, matters.
 

Meg Downey covers movies, TV and comics for DCComics.com, and writes two monthly columns for the site"Gotham Gazette" and "Relationship Roundup." You can follow her on Twitter at @rustypolished.