One of the good guys (Double Talk)

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It’s still November 22, 1997, so the charts and headlines are unchanged. (Not that they’ve been changing much anyway.) On The New Batman Adventures, we have a rarity: a genuine, permanentvillain reformation.
As we’ve discussed before, there is a tendency in comics and comics-derived media for characters to revert back to their “most interesting” or “classic” form, due to the continual rollover of writers. Even if a given writer intends for a change to be permanent, sooner or later another writer comes along who prefers the “classic” version of the character, and the change is reverted or retconned. Since villains are usually created to be villains–and, more to the point, since therefore the dominant trait of most villains is their villainy–there is a high probability that any attempt by the writers to reform them will eventually be undone because a later writer wants to play with the villainous version of the character.
But if ever there was an exception, it’s Arnold Wesker. An unwilling participant in crime, dragged along by his violent alternate persona manifested through the dummy Scarface, the most interesting thing about him is not that he’s a villain, but that he isn’t one. He is the purest example we have of someone whose criminal activity is entirely a product of his circumstances–he doesn’t commit crimes because of an inherent criminality, but because of an external force.
And Scarface is external. Product of psychological trauma and mental illness or not, it’s very clear that from Wesker’s perspective Scarface isn’t a part of who he really is; the Wesker persona is the only one he wants to be. Contrast another character with fragmented identity here: Superman is as much Clark Kent as he is Superman, and episodes have variously emphasized both aspects. Both are a part of who he is, and he needs both–and we know this about him because he tells us it’s so.
That contrast is important. To get personal for a moment, I have been diagnosed at various times with depression, PTSD, avoidant personality disorder, and gender dysphoria. I don’t regard any of those as an essential part of who I am: they are external in the same sense that a broken arm is external. They are wounds, left in me by life, and their healing would allow me to be more myself, not less. But for some people, a so-called disorder or a disability is a part of who they are, not something to seek or wish for freedom from.  That’s their prerogative; nobody gets to define anyone else’s narrative for them.
But the point stands: the most interesting thing about Wesker is that he’s not really a criminal; he’s someone who’s committed crimes. In real life, of course, that’s everyone who commits crimes–there’s not really any such thing as criminals as a separate class of human beings. But in superhero comics generally, and the DCAU in particular, some people are criminals, some are heroes, and some are ordinary people who need protection; Wesker is the last category.
This duality makes him one of the most interesting characters to watch try to reform, for much the same reason as Harvey Dent. With “a criminal,” there’s no tension: we know they will fail because criminality is a part of who they are. Nobody gets to define anyone else’s narrative when we’re talking about real people, but of course a fictional character’s narrative is defined for them by their writers, and their writers have defined them as criminals. Wesker, by contrast, is defined as an innocent pulled into crime by circumstance–and unlike, say, Mister Freeze, Baby Doll, or Harley Quinn, he remains innocent, bullied and cowed into committing crimes rather than choosing them or convincing himself of their necessity.
“Double Talk” in particular plays with Scarface’s existence as a separate character, as an impersonator gaslights a rehabilitated Wesker into bringing back the alternate persona. More interesting is that Batman and Batgirl’s analysis suggests that the voice Batman hears over the phone is Scarface, which appears impossible–unless that phone call actually is from Scarface, not the impersonator. Initially that might not appear to make sense, since Scarface’s voice is just a projection of Wesker’s, which is impossible over the phone; however, remember that Batman’s relationship to Bruce Wayne is equivalent. Scarface and Batman are both protector fantasies a traumatized child created to shield them from a world of terror, then turned outward to terrorize that world in turn; of course, as entities of the same order of being, Batman can hear Scarface.
And that’s ultimately the most important thing. Batman wants his villains to reform, needs them to, where Superman is content just to put them away, because Batman feels his fractured identity as something imposed on him rather than a part of who he is. For all that he thinks of himself as Batman first and Bruce Wayne second, he nonetheless experiences Batman as a burden, a weight, an imposition–he dreams of freedom. (Literally, in “Perchance to Dream.”) Batman needs them to reform, to save them, because he needs to believe he can be reformed and saved.
And here he succeeds. Partially that’s because there are only 14 episodes of Batman: The Animated Series/The New Batman Adventures left, and the Bat Embargo will prevent Wesker from showing up in other DCAU series. But that’s just it: knowing that this was the final season, the writers chose to bring Wesker’s narrative to a close with peace, healing, and freedom.
There is hope. But there is a tension as well; just as two forces, represented by Batman and Scarface, pull in opposite directions on Wesker, two forces pull in opposite directions on Batman: the desire to be healed, and the fact that Batman is the foundation of the DCAU. There has to always be a Batman; Bruce Wayne cannot truly even begin to heal unless he somehow becomes unnecessary to Batman–until there can be a Batman beyond him.

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2 thoughts on “One of the good guys (Double Talk)

  1. Well, uh… we’ll just leave poor ol’ Arnold to his happy ending, then. By the way, for completely unrelated reasons, you might wanna skip doing decons of the Gotham Adventures tie-in comic. *Whistles*
    The Ventriloquist has always fascinated me for reasons of aesthetic if nothing else – another fan, before my time, noted that he’s the only post-Crisis villain who really looks like he could’ve been part of Batman’s rogues gallery from the start. Half Edgar Bergen, half Eddie G. Robinson… it’s a wonder it took ’til 88 for someone to put the two together!
    (In terms of psychoanalysis it’s a little more ehhh. I can appreciate that he’s probably the villain audiences have least investment in keeping a villain, but at the same time that just means he’s two one-dimensional personalities crammed into one body. Not like Two-Face, whose personalities CAN genuinely be at-ease with one another, which raises all sorts of interesting questions about how far a man can accept necessary evils – or necessary goods, as the case may be…)

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