The secret identity has been an indelible part of the superhero mythos since Superman first landed in 1938. Little more than children themselves, and writing for a primarily young audience, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster saw the inclusion of mild-mannered Clark Kent as part of the power fantasy of the Superman character. To the world at large, you might seem meek or mild, or bullied, but inside is an unlimited potential–a Superman waiting to break free. For most of the history of the superhero, the secret identity was an essential component of the concept with any masked hero having a hidden life outside of the capes and spandex.
But as the comics have kept up with modern times and been adapted to the screen where the beautiful faces of the actors are a selling point, the masks and secret identities became less essential and creators began to see the story potential in either removing the component from their characters or putting less focus on it. Often the secret identity becomes a punch line. Indeed, many heroes have grown past the need for a secret identity and make more sense without it. Why should Steve Rogers hide he is Captain America? Or why would Tony Stark, with his massive ego, pretend not to be Iron Man? Even Superman, in the comics, recently revealed his identity to the public at large, no longer able to reconcile the truth and justice he stands for with living a lie.
Only a few superheroes still maintain a secret identity as an important element, and it is primarily because of their public perception as outsiders and vigilantes. Spider-Man went to the ends of the Earth–both on-page and on-screen–to recover his secret after it went public. Daredevil’s brand of justice puts his practice as a lawyer in jeopardy. And Batman, while no doubt a hero, works outside the law and is at odds with the police of his city. Unlike Superman, who often works alongside the authorities even as he criticizes them, Batman is fundamentally opposed to the authority of the state and his mission would be jeopardized if he could be held legally accountable for his actions.
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What must it be like to be Batman? To take on inhuman problems and battle the very idea of violence, to take on the darkness of an entire city, an entire world? A lonely thing, no doubt. Is it any wonder he has built an extended foster family for himself to share the load? But even an extended family of children and acolytes never truly fills the void. The hole at the center of Batman, the lonely boy who lost his family in a single moment of evil, is never filled. There is always another crime, another dark corner.
In writer Tom King’s sometimes controversial run on Batman, he posited that the only thing that comes close to filling that empty, dark hole, is the kindred spirit he finds in Selina Kyle, Catwoman. The two have had nearly a century of back and forth tension, as enemies and lovers and everywhere in between. If there is a partner that can help Batman repair that hole at his center, Tom King argues, it is Catwoman. Like Batman, she lives between the shadow and the light, a stray who grew up on the streets of Gotham. Like Batman, Gotham is more than just a home, it is an extension of her identity and she will do anything to protect it and its people.
King brings Batman to the realization that the hole at the center is most filled with Catwoman at his side. Her cunning, her passion for her city, her wit and intelligence, these things make him better. Batman might study criminals, but Selina has been among them and knows what drives people to that life. Daring, for one of the first times, to embrace the happiness he feels beside her, they are engaged. But on the wedding day, coerced by the complex machinations of Bane, she leaves Batman jilted at the altar. For the first time, Batman allowed himself to dream of a full life, a real future of growing old with a loved one, of compromising on the fight and embracing the idea that more is possible for him and for Gotham.
When Catwoman leaves him, he crashes back into the depths, hopeless and empty once again.
This is the context where Cold Days begins. Having tracked down Mr. Freeze for the death of three women, he brutally beats the villain and coerces a confession from him. The story begins with Freeze on trial and Bruce Wayne on the jury. Eleven of them believe Freeze to be guilty, cut and dry. With his history of crimes and violence, the evidence of this specific case is largely irrelevant to them. But there is a single hold out—Bruce Wayne himself. He has bribed his way onto the jury after realizing that Batman might have been wrong. Driven by fear and anger and sorrow, he let his emotions take over in a violent outburst that left Freeze traumatized and fearing for his life. When Bruce realizes it, he cannot let the doubt he feels about the case go unaddressed.
What must it be like to be Batman?
A perfect, impossibly competent, and flawless human being. Not super-powered, but a superhero still. Can you imagine what it could mean to never fail?
What is it about Batman that has made him so appealing to not just comic book fans but to mainstream movie audiences? He is a violent vigilante, a broken and lonely soul who takes justice into his own hands.
Is it an aspiration? That with the commitment someone can become strong-willed enough, capable enough, to fight against injustice and criminality without being corrupted? Is it the escapist power fantasy of taking your fists to every injustice that has befallen you?
Perhaps it is the dream that a single person can attain the pinnacle of perfection. Batman, in the popular imagination, is not just a man, no mere mortal. He might not have super powers but he is Perfect. There is no mystery he can’t solve. No crime he can’t stop. No situation that he cannot plan or account for.
Over time Batman has become more than just a man. This idea of the perfect, unbeatable Batman has been affectionately referred to by comic fans and creators alike the Batgod. With prep time and a contingency for every possibility, Batman can solve everything.
Tom King’s Cold Days is a counter to that limited and limiting conception of Batman as perfect and infallible. For King, Batman’s strength is not in his perfection but his flawed humanity. He fails, he loses, but he never gives up.
Grant Morrison’s seminal run on Batman is the apotheosis of the Batgod, the purest example of Batman as myth, an archetypal good set against the archetypal evil in a metafictional conflict of living symbols. That Batman is prepared for everything, is unkillable, is incorruptible, and needs no support system, no love, nothing but the mission.
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, arguably the defining take on Batman in pop culture for the 21st century, straddles the line between man and myth. Bruce Wayne might be human, but the symbol of Batman becomes a myth, his justice selfless and mission morally forthright. He might lose an individual battle but the war is an inevitable victory. As Bruce explains in Batman Begins, “As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.”
Zack Snyder’s Batman is the extreme end of the Batman as power fantasy, a one-man judge, jury, and executioner who is self-righteous enough to consider himself humanity’s protector against the incursion of alien forces. A brutal, vindictive executioner without remorse. It is a level of masculine power fantasy at a level beyond parody.
But Tom King’s Batman is painfully mortal, sunk to the depths of defeat and despair not purely physically but emotionally and mentally. Like Knightfall, it is a calculated effort by Bane to break the Bat at his very foundation. As Batman’s world gets swept out from under his feet, King deconstructs the Batgod concept reminding readers what truly makes Batman endure: his humanity.
Perhaps Batman has over time bought into his own myth—believed in his perfection. Indeed, Bruce Wayne admits as much. Toward the end of Cold Days, Bruce asks a fellow juror if she believes in God. In doing so he challenges the rest of the jury’s summary acceptance of Batman’s infallible judgment that citizens of Gotham take for granted.
It is logical the people of Gotham would accept Batman as perfect. Wouldn’t that be easier than to consider that he might just be a broken human being, like you and me, dressed up like a bat? If Batman can be wrong, then the entire enterprise cannot be trusted.
But Bruce is painfully aware of the truth, of the hole deep inside that keeps him moving forward. Gotham City needs Batman to be perfect and infallible because then there is no need to question his actions. In doing so, they have deified a mere mortal and placed him above themselves. Bruce Wayne needs Batman to be perfect to fill the hole inside.
Biblically speaking, perfection is an attribute. A teleological end toward which humanity can only strive toward with God’s example. That is, perfection is the thing for which humans were created to achieve.
It is ultimately unobtainable, however. God is the model of perfection, the completion of human potential for which we should ever strive.
In Batman, the people of Gotham have created a perfect man.
What putting Batman on a pedestal and deifying him does is ultimately leave him burdened with expectations he cannot fulfill. As Bruce tries to express his reasonable doubt, it requires convincing the rest of the jury to put aside the question of super-competency and their assumption, taken for granted, that Batman is inherently just “better.”
It is a horrifying notion that Batman himself has had to grapple with as the heartbreak sinks him deeper into the darkness, stranded and alone again in the night. Bruce came to see Batman as the super-competent, infallible god who could save not just Gotham and the world but himself from the depths. As he saw the future he imagined crumble before him, there was nothing that the Batgod could do.
Trying in vain to control his reality, he coerces Mr. Freeze into confessing to a crime by beating him brutally, unhinged, and without a clear case.
Bruce knows there is no perfect Batgod. No super-competence or iron-clad deduction. Just an angry man and a beating.
He challenges the rest of the jury to try and see what placing a man in the place of God gets you, inevitably. The disappointment of being failed by the idol.
In his heartfelt speech, Bruce speaks not only to his fellow jurors but to readers an earnest plea to see Batman not as something other, but as a human being like the rest of us. It does not take away from his accomplishments or the escapism. Rather, it is the heart of what makes him so enduring. The failures, the pain, the breakings, they don’t bounce off of him but he is able to overcome them and carry on.
The incomparable Lee Weeks provides the art for this three issue story, and his subtle work is critical to the success of this story and the emotional punch. The way the imagery of Batman’s brutality smashes across the page in the quiet jury room scenes, the palpable rage emphasized by subtle lines of motion and spreads of blood, it is clear these are flashes of memories that haunt Bruce, that intrude on his day-to-day life.
Weeks’ work contrasts the reserved and stoic Bruce Wayne with a Batman who screams in rage, his emotions unchecked. It’s a reversal for Batman, who is so often portrayed as unflappable and cold.
By having Bruce admit his reliance on Batman as his higher power, King defies readers to challenge their presumptions of what they expect out of a Batman story and how they relate to the character. Bruce allowed himself to live in the fantasy that he was beyond human restraints, buying into the mythology he sold to the people of Gotham. In being willing to admit his own hubris and vulnerability, by challenging his fellow jurors to examine their assumptions of Batman’s perfection, he elevates their humanity in the process.
Batman endures not because he is better than you or me but because he is like us. Cold Days celebrates that fundamental humanity at the heart of the character and in doing so it reminds us of what we are capable of as normal people. If Batman is not set apart from us, then he can inspire us to push our own limits and believe in what we could accomplish.
What must it be like to be Batman?
We already know. Because to be Batman is to be human, to fail and fall and break and continue on.
Cold Days is a 3 issue story originally printed in Batman vol. 3 51-53. It is collected in a trade paperback of the same name. Written by Tom King with art by Lee Weeks, colors by Elizabeth Breitweiser, and letters by Clayton Cowles.