Son of Batman
In memory, the revelation is unclear. When did I know I was Batman? I don’t think there was a particular moment, or if there was, it eludes recollection, like the moment you first realize you’ll one day die. But in fact, I think it was a series of clues, as with all good identity narratives: not a comic book creation myth—no vats of toxic chemicals, no radioactive spiders, no vendettas, no revenge-tragedy foibles, no psychologically scarring physical deformities. There was a slow process of unfurling. First the name, the simple guise: Bateman. Batman with an “e” deposited right down the center. How minutia separates the commonplace from the extraordinary; it was an easy enough transformation, from the savior of humankind to the German “boatman,” the Ellis Island immigrant wage laborer. Simplicity is brilliance, like the black frame glasses that separate Clark Kent from Superman. Then it was the alienation: the precocious introversion, the want of distance, the way people looked at me with suspicion. A close family friend told me on the day of my high school valedictory address that he thought I had been retarded as a child. He used this word precisely: retarded. He thought, he said, my brother was the gifted one. Me, there was something unnameably amiss. It was in the way I spoke, he said, to no one. But I didn’t speak to no one. I spoke to the figures in my head: something my CAT scan had missed. I was young when they had me CAT scanned. I understood this to be a test involving feline sacrifices; perhaps the machine ran on calico blood. They tested me after I claimed continually that my “hair hurt.” In fact, it panged violently, and I expressed this to my parents in equally violent pangs. I squalled. Aside from this, I didn’t speak—not toddler, not child. I spoke only in a near-monastic vocabulary of nonverbal cues. Mostly I rolled my eyes. But nope, prognosis negative—just a particularly malignant case of brattiness with a capital B. My older brother Jarrod, by this point, was very verbal. At seven, he described at length the “boo-wows” in my
grandfather’s pasture, which is to say moo cows, and the “woof-woofs” that pissed on the fire hydrant near my house. We kept a woof-woof, name of Poochie. He didn’t speak much either, though no one thought to have him scanned but me. Or perhaps these CAT scans were a hoax. After all, for all their wonder and expense, they couldn’t pinpoint my precise affliction, couldn’t locate the data I never communicated—that I was heir to the Batman legacy, for instance, that I was destined to be alone with my gifts, that I was born to save my small, East Texas town from the maniacal villainy of squalor, ignorance, prejudice. Hindsight being what it is, I wish I had been born decades earlier so that I might have used my gifts to invent a more insightful CAT scanning process. When it occurred to me that I was the next Batman, I only straddled the line between truth and fancy. Always better to err on the side of just in case, I prepped myself, devoting time to television research with sacerdotal zeal. The research began before Tim Burton became the new Batman imagineer, so my imagined Batman started as a campy 1960s Adam West, whose gut distended from his nylon tights, long before Hollywood masculinity became a pathology. He was my first gummy morsel of gender consumption, identity diffusion, and good old classic narcissism. Indeed, here was a superhero of the post-freud persuasion, whose sidekick wore panty hose with green briefs, a ballsy faux pas even now for anyone anywhere on the gendersex spectrum. West knew things I knew. He had perfect pitch, could sing a high, high C, shattering the Riddler’s glass trap of death. When the Joker left a clue— He who laughs last, laughs good— West rushed off to the city well, a proper grammarian. As Bruce Wayne, he enjoyed opera and art; his Batcave foyer library was replete with all the necessary Oxford Classics in first edition hardcovers. He sprang from jams with Ivy-league wit and a charming foppery. Importantly, his engineering prowess predated the computer age. He was all I had outside of my father. This may not have been a problem were my father and I not so irreconcilably different. My father was a brute of a man, the picture of masculinity: hairychested, splinter-faced, catastrophically distempered. The tattoo he home-inflicted on his left arm was the initials “P.H.,” purportedly those of an ex-girlfriend, though I half suspected it stood for Pussy Hater, which is to say, hater of wimps: my ilk. People have witnessed him bench press more than three hundred pounds. At age eleven, he got his first job at a full-service gas station. At fifteen, he moved out of the
house. By nineteen, he was working eighty-hour shifts on an offshore oil rig, doing man’s work on a man’s schedule. When I was twelve, he bought me a rifle for Christmas. I, on the other hand, was a runt. At any point in time, I was twenty pounds lighter than my peers, which, in childhood, accounted for a formidable fraction of body mass index. I was pallid skin and jutting bone; my ribs stuck out like a goddamn xylophone. Eventually, I would read my mother’s educational textbook on adolescence, which would call me an ectomorph, a word sounding more like an insect classification than a human body type, which made it all the more fitting. I comprised a chitinous exoskeleton and a disproportionately large head, like a praying mantis. My constellation of freckles, like banana spots, were an evolutionary mechanism. I must have been floated down the bulrushes from a banana grove, all the way to Jacksonville comma Texas, population 14,868 by last census. More the younger version of my father, Jarrod was a mesomorph, meaning bearer of musculature: meaning, not a pussy. He could open things and turn things, for which I would need my big, bright, gold, gay utility belt. He had a different sort of evolutionary memory, too. From birth, he knew the rules of boyhood, knew how to be dirty, that cow shit on your tennis shoes was OK, that lifting things was preferable to leaving them alone, and that shirts were something sissies wore. These were the mistakes I made. I knew the words to The Sound of Music and sang them in mixed company. Didn’t know the rules to touch football, or flag football, or football football. Played piano, instead of no musical instrument at all. These were things only Batman could make OK.
In 1989, I met a darker, more sophisticated Batman. Michael Keaton: not an obvious choice for the role. But the set design, the character, the costume—great! His was a film that said: I am gothic. Do you get the gothic? Do you feel the gothic? I felt the gothic. I also felt the other characteristics of the new Batman style. Tim Burton’s Batman Batcave was less industrial (in that pedestrian, factory way) than its 1960s television predecessor, higher tech, at greater cost, and more stygian, mysterious. Parts of the 1989 Batman film were shot on location at a Vanderbilt mansion built shortly after Reconstruction— one of the last vestiges of the moribund, if not mortem, Bruce Wayne class. Bruce Wayne was worth $6.8 billion. Many believe Batman is an anomaly as a superhero without superpowers, but this is a grave mis-
conception: he is both super smart and super rich. That early on I tested into the former of these categories marks my auspicious beginnings as Batman, The Next Generation. Starting from a very young age, my family told me that my intelligence would be worth millions someday. Millions? I asked. In sixth grade, for Christmas, my aunt bought me a copy of The Millionaire Next Door. It spoke of teachers and tradesmen who had scrimped and saved all for the sake of a seven-figure net worth. But Bruce Wayne was an effortless billionaire. Heir to Wayne Enterprises, he had a disposable income that rivaled the gross domestic product of the Commonwealth of Dominica. Here was a Batman who understood class and intrigue. Who understood, also, the casual debonairness of introversion. I, too, was introverted. At nights while my brother slept sonorously in the under-bunk, I played alone in the middle of my room, lights off. It was my room when the lights were off. Jarrod, even into the privileged years of his teens, always feared the dark. I embraced the dark as a vacuum of identity. Any good Bat would. The cover of dark enables many necessary things: midnight ministries impossible by daylight. For instance, I let it be known that housecleaning was too menial for my caste, a fact my parents accepted with little resignation. But my room, then, a mess! Where were my servants? Where was my Alfred Pennyworth? Bruce Wayne would never tolerate such disarray, so unbecoming of one’s genteel sensibilities, one’s bachelorly chicness. So I cleaned at night. By morning, I disavowed knowledge. No one cleaned my room. My room was clean, because that was the order of the universe: the godliness that naturally followed the elite. This, my parents never understood. My intelligence, my demeanor, were not freaks of nature: they were fate. There was no chromosomal mismatch, no mitotic cataclysm, nothing clumsy enough for a CAT scan to discern. Of the 640 million permutations of sperm and egg, X or Y, brown eye or blue, I drew the Batman gene. I did weigh my options. I could conform to my surroundings like a good sentient being—pick up a basketball and posture athleticism, belch out loud and posture boorishness, pick up a pitchfork and a cattle prod and a bar wench, posture manhood and stupor and fraternity. Or I could be Mother Fucking Batman.
(When I’m asked to describe myself in three words, these are the ones I use.)
So, there came the inevitable age when the world split. Did I prefer my Batman campy—adam West—or did I prefer him otherwise—michael Keaton? I can never pin down an adjective for Michael Keaton’s Batman. Certainly he isn’t manlier. To borrow from Tim Burton himself, why would a “big, macho, Arnold Schwarzenegger-type person dress up as a bat for God’s sake?” But certainly there is a distinction between Keaton and West, and certainly that distinction is manifest in their respective costumes. Even at an early age, the campy one I could never wear—too revealing. Something about the spandex that made the costume, as such, unnecessary. If you could pull off full-body spandex, why would you need a costume? And me pulling off a spandex suit with my xylophone ribs and Casper pallor was a No. The costume should fill out the inadequacies of the form. At an early age of development, give me a costume with built-in obliques, some bulge around the codpiece—something to impress the ladies at the lunch counter. A cape with a wink at its flip.
But here, already, were these questions of masculinity, contemplated even at early ages when your sibling learns the word faggot, not really knowing its comprehensive or political implications but at least knowing its ability to emasculate. As the target of such an ability, you learn it quickly. You disavow knowledge of Adam West and his spandexed “partner,” decked out in full-body condom with no women around to speak of. The foppery ceases to charm, becomes foppish. Now you know what foppish means, as part of that class of fricatives alongside faggot, denoting some sexual perversity or malformation that you don’t even know yet if you have or not, because you’re eight, or twelve, and still in that Freudian narcissistic phase: that time when you’re supposedly in love with yourself or the continually revised image of yourself. Something about learning “object attachments” from your mother, whose sole object attachment, it turns out, is you. This is what you learn to fall in love with: what she falls in love with. Among other things you learn from your mother at these early ages, you learn how to be a “faggot.” Your brother learns to exploit this: the brother you thought was an idiot but turns out to be one step ahead of Dr. Freud himself. Of course, the age difference made me an easy target for my brother, five years my senior and markedly, at any one point, more developed. We were
always, in near memory at least, separated by the adolescent curtain. While he was off heterosexing with his coeds, I was still in love with my Batman costume: first and fleeting, the one I could never wear, and then the real one—the one of Gothic fantasy, of pathological masculinity, of the strength and rigor of tire rubber rather than spandex, of intricately carved Gray’s Anatomy of man. But the problem is only partially the brother. The brother, still in some respects a child himself, has his own problems. The problem is also the father: the biological father, the father figure, the father of masculine role modelship, the father who beams beatifically when you undress your final Christmas gift, wrapped in patchwork that allows you to see the seams of the box—the box of your brand new rifle. You check your Christmas list, check it twice. Surely, somewhere, in a fit of fever, maybe a gesture of suicide, you had written “rifle.” But no, only father’s intuition. Perhaps the coup de grâce, though, is the concession of literature in your stocking: Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. Something didn’t add up. But my genetics were just too woefully a match for me to have been adopted: freckle to freckle, blue eye to blue eye, similar height to Tom Cruise’s proportions. It had to be the ordination. My father was destined to be inadequate, because I was destined to be Batman. Or Freud was destined to be right.
The “family romance” is a term coined to express the neurotic’s fantasy of “getting free from the parents of whom he now has a low opinion and of replacing them by others, who, as a rule, are of higher social standing.” First, there was the process of disillusionment, then the process of replacement. Disillusionment: But I was a Batman fantasizer so early on, as early as I can remember. But the signs were all there, and it didn’t take a super-sleuth to assimilate them into the final hypothesis that my parents were inadequate (I’m not alone in this; everyone is a teenager). This is not to say inadequate persons or even parental figures, but I was looking for someone a little apter, someone whose intuition did not say, “Buy him a rifle, he’ll love it.” (To be fair, my brother would, and did. I gave it to him, or rather he assumed it from its neglected position in the back of the closet. He slew many beasts with it.) I was looking for someone who knew the meaning of class and intrigue. Replacement: Bruce Wayne is a billionaire. Watch the movie again. Notice the libraries. Tally the literary allusions. Note, also, the absence of wall-mounted guns (like in my parents’ living room). Observe that Vicki Vale, his love
interest, is a Pulitzer-winning photojournalist who pursues him. The effortless airs of a playboy, the casual intellect, the dearth of guns: these are things I needed. Because while my brother was the one in school winning footraces and football games, I was the one reading in the back of the classroom, ogling the other girl reading in the back of the classroom—not sexually, but in the recognition of what the fellowship of intellect actually meant. In America, it means class mobility. It meant a ticket out of Jacksonville, Texas, a much-needed one, like a vacation, but longer, to Gotham City maybe, home of Bruce Wayne—to the chic noir of New York, where everyone is bookish and intellectually ambitious. In this way, Bruce Wayne and Batman embodied place as well, the personifications of romance of New York and citiness. Perhaps my fantasy was also a “locale romance.” New York was just inaccessible enough (I of course had never been there) to harbor all my illusions. Illusion is key, quoth Freud: “the whole effort at replacing the real father by a superior one is only an expression of the child’s longing for the happy, vanished days when his father seemed to him the noblest and strongest of men and his mother the dearest and loveliest of women.” Only illusionary fiction could support such an ideal, and the ideal is paramount. This problem is one of anyone’s, it seems to me: that in living with one’s parents while evolving oneself, one must realize their humanity, and the ideal is bust. So like with the fictional Bruce Wayne, New York (Gotham City) became the ideal setting and candidate for my own little romance. But why worship the heroized version of Bruce? Why not the Bruce without the Batman? In “A Special Type of Choice of Object Made By Men,” Freud describes how the boy of the neurotic persuasion sometimes “forms the phantasy of rescuing his father from danger and saving his life; in this way he puts his account square with him. . . . It is as though the boy’s defiance were to make him say: ‘I want nothing from my father; I will give him back all I have cost him.’” Hence my never-ending battle to rescue my father from the ensuing squalor of East Texan, patriarchal ideology. When he gives me rifles, I reciprocate with literature. When he takes me hunting, I coerce him to the museum. What a perverse and insulting reciprocity! But it makes sense that if I am to let my Batman freak flag fly, I must first break free of the father by breaking him free. I must repay my debts to him. After all, my father is a charming man whose charm I tried to learn along the way. But if the hero, why, too, the cowl and cape? Cut to Burton on the casting process:
So I saw a zillion people and the thing that kept going through my mind when I saw these action-adventure
hero types come into the office was, “I just can’t see them putting on a bat-suit. I can’t see it.” I was seeing these big macho guys, and then thinking of them with pointy eyes, and it was, “Why would this big, macho, Arnold Schwarzenegger-type person dress up as a bat for God’s sake?” A bat is this wild thing. I’d worked with Michael (Keaton) before and so I thought he would be perfect, because he’s got that look in his eye. It’s there in Beetlejuice. It’s like that guy you could see putting on a bat-suit; he does it because he needs to, because he’s not this gigantic, strapping macho man. It’s all about transformation.
Like Burton’s assumed Keaton, I also wanted to transform. And Batman was my projected self—the idealized end to transformation.
Over the years, like everyone’s, my projected self has evolved. Currently it tends to take the form of literary-liberal hipsterism. I listen to the correctly independent brands of music, read the correctly “serious” brands of literature, watch the correctly “artful” brands of films, recycle, wash my dishes with detergent twice the price of normal but unharmful to our siblings in the sea, appreciate gallery art, have all the “Millennial” qualities of hip-to-be-square self-absorption while not believing in the traditional routes to aggrandizement—law school, investment banking, and the like. And still, I have no clue what the medium of my life will resemble tomorrow. Susan Sontag wrote that every person is a persona, from the Latin meaning “mask.” And behind this mask, what? Several thinkers suggest there is no such space. If a man is but a layering of masks, to unmask would be to efface entirely. But to Sontag, behind the mask lies cruelty. I say, confusion. My father didn’t know any better than to be the man he was, born in rural East Texas, at work by age eleven. And of course he has endearing qualities. In fact, he encouraged my Batman obsession, though his motives were unclear: would Batman make me into a man? As I share my recollections with him over the phone and through the email I instructed him how to use, he wonders out loud why I haven’t remembered the Bat-signal he built for me when I was seven. He carefully describes the memory he feels I should have inked out: “I cut a bat symbol out of plywood with a jigsaw and affixed it to the end of a flashlight. It was probably one of the coolest things any dad has ever made.”
I have also discovered, in recent years, that my father keeps a secret stash of poetry he’s written on acid-yellow legal pads in an inconspicuous briefcase behind his work trousers in the northeast corner of his closet. When I discovered his stash, even among the myriad amateurish mistakes apparent to me as a teacher of literature—the inverted syntax, the trite end rhyme, the dime-store clichés, all reasons why he must have felt it necessary to hide his writing—i tripped over two lines that made me fall in love with my entire family, I cried for the first time in four years, and I couldn’t bear to finish reading. I regret that my snobbery brought out the worst of my father’s insecurity, and that our two anxieties (mine, masculinity; his, intellect) together created escalating challenges for one another. Of course I was a precocious child, and of course I made him self-conscious. Did I exploit this as much as my brother exploited my insecurities about my gender? Everyone around us constructs the masks we wear, behind which is a nebula of misunderstanding. Consider that my choice mask was Tim Burton’s Batman, the one whose rubber rippled with the flexing of preternatural, non-anatomical muscles—the one Burton himself classified as a built-in Schwarzenegger. Consider that my father now engages literary debates in his new, self-bought New Yorker subscription. If the mask means to fill out the form’s inadequacies, who defines them? My father and I have done a mutually exhaustive job of it. This year for Christmas, I’ve already bought him the novel du jour, and I’ll expect another gym membership in return.