It’s October 26, 1992, three days after “Night of the Ninja,” so see that post for news and charts.
For some time now, I have been arguing that Batman was not created by Bruce Wayne as an adult, when he donned the costume, but as a child, when his parents were killed. If you want confirmation, you need look no further than this episode. It lays the logic out directly in Strange’s recording of Wayne’s secret thoughts: dead parents leads to pain, to anger, to revenge, with revenge depicted as first bats and then the Bat. The recordings are almost disappointingly straightforward compared to, for instance, the weird and hallucinatory depiction of the same events in Bruce’s dream in “Two-Face,” but they do retain the element that the gun is simply floating, without any hand holding it. This is unsurprising; young Bruce was no doubt fixated in terror on the gun from the moment he saw it, and barely registered the gunman (unnamed in the DCAU, but identified as Joe Chill in the comics and some other adaptations). In his memory, in his dreams, there is no human being who killed his parents–and thus no motive, no desperation, no tragic past or horrific “bad day” of the sort the show takes pains to depict for many of its villains. There is only the Gun, the Crime–an abstraction, which can be fought without thought for the people who commit it, their motives for doing it, the systems which push them toward it, or the ways in which those same systems empower Wayne to be Batman.
But this episode isn’t about the origins of Batman. They come up, but only as the means by which Dr. Strange (not to be confused with Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange, who is a physician and superhero wizard; DC’s Strange is a villainous psychiatrist) learns his secret identity. The main focus of the episode is the tension of that secret. As Hugo says early on, keeping secrets is a source of stress, and so it is for Batman. Most obviously, we have seen before–most recently in “Night of the Ninja”–that the need to maintain his secret identity can leave him unable to fight back if he is surprised or captured out of costume. There’s also the complexity of his relationship with Selena Kyle–thanks to his secret identity, he is effectively in a love triangle in which he is two of the points! Less obviously, it can’t be fun to lie to friends and allies like Commissioner Gordon.
Yet he fights to protect his secret. In the examination room, he struggles to resist Strange’s machine, and when it pulls the notion of vengeance out of him, he immediately cuts off the session. In his view (keeping in mind that, at this point, he has no idea it is recording images from his thoughts as well) just the idea that his young self wanted revenge is too close to the truth for comfort. Batman, after all, is presented textually as Bruce Wayne’s revenge, and subtextually as his fear and desire for protection. Exploring his desire for revenge with Strange leads dangerously close not only to exposure of his secret identity in comic book terms, but psychologically as well–that his real self is neither the Bat nor the rich playboy, but the traumatized child.
This is what trauma does. It stops time, bringing the victim back again and again to re-experience the trauma: in flashbacks if they have PTSD, in nightmares, in the way it distorts all experiences that follow after. It shatters identity, splitting the victim into “me before” and “me after,” and sometimes in other ways as well: dissociation is not uncommon in the aftermath of trauma, nor are major behavioral shifts, mood swings, and mood disorders. It can profoundly alter who a person is.
Young Bruce dealt with his trauma by creating the Bat, a protector who could shield him from danger and pain, and enact his revenge on Crime itself. Behind that shield, he grew up into Bruce Wayne, himself a man of two faces: publicly a lazy rich playboy, privately a hard worker who trains body and mind obsessively and pushes himself to barely endurable extremes. But both are performances, though the obsessive is slightly closer to the truth. As he himself will say, he calls himself Batman in his thoughts–but of course he does.
After all, Batman’s parents weren’t murdered in an alley in front of him. They can’t have been, because Batman didn’t exist yet, and anyway doesn’t have parents–he was created ex nihilo by an eight-year-old boy. Batman might be a persona that Wayne identifies with more strongly than either the public face of Bruce Wayne or the private face he shows Alfred and Robin and very few others, but he’s still a mask. Strip away the masks and defenses and you are left with a traumatized child, frozen at the moment of trauma, his identity shattered by it. Of course he invents other selves to wear!
And of course that means anyone trying to strip away those personae and examine the child underneath is an enemy. Batman doesn’t just protect his secret identity because, as this episode shows, a villain might kidnap Alfred as part of a scheme against him. Nor does he just do it because, like Selena Kyle, his activities might be hampered if people knew just who was dressing up as a bat and committing assault, battery, breaking and entering, and who knows what other crimes on a nightly basis. For Batman, there is a psychological need to keep his identities separate. To reveal the secret is to take steps toward reintegrating his shattered identities, which in turn means becoming “me before”–that is, the little boy who saw his parents killed. Batman can’t protect him if he is him, if punches that land on Batman land on them both, if the pain of Bruce Wayne’s loss is felt by them both.
We rarely see Bruce Wayne angry, and moreso we rarely hear him angry. Conroy’s voice work is quite distinctive depending on which he is playing at the moment, but it is not a case of putting on a different voice–his Batman is not, for example, nigh-comically raspy the way Christian Bale’s is. Instead, Conroy reserves different emotional registers for the two aspects: Batman is colder, angrier, harsher, while Wayne is warmer, friendlier, and lighter. But this episode is an exception: when he shouts “Revenge!” in the session with Strange, and later when he smashes Strange’s machine, it sounds much more like Batman. Strange’s machine frightens Wayne, and makes him angry, in a way that (say) Kyodai Ken clearly did not. So desperate does he become to keep Wayne and Batman separate, he even has Robin dress up in a Bruce Wayne costume so that Wayne and Batman can be publicly seen together, “proving” that they are two different people.
This, perhaps, is the real “strange secret of Bruce Wayne”: his secret identity is not Bruce Wayne, playboy. It is not Batman, crime fighter, either. Both are personae, literal masks–the black one he dons as Batman, and the flesh-toned one Robin removes at the end of episode. His real secret identity is Bruce Wayne, eight-year-old boy, shattered and frozen at the moment of his parents’ murder, split into the Bat and the Man. Or, to view it another way, the secret is that he has no identity at all; the duality between Batman and Bruce Wayne is who he is, and without it, he is no one at all.
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