Batman and The Shadow
The Argument for Both
The above video by Professor Geek is titled “Oversaturation Kills Mythology” and after watching it, I took the time to think about a matter I have heard discussed a great deal. This is the belief that Batman is an inferior knockoff of the Shadow and that all superheroes since then are mere imitators of the pulp heroes in general. Given my love of superheroes I decided not to enter this debate because I could not explain why I think this argument is not built on a good foundation.
Listening to the Professor’s video, I now know what in particular has bothered me about this debate. It lacks a key piece of understanding: the archetypes which both the Shadow and Batman fill are not the same, so pitting them against one another when they do not conflict is a matter for pointless debate. Batman and the Shadow may not be compared to one another and are thus not opposed to each other for the simple reason that they are entirely different archetypes.
It is true that Batman began life as a Shadow knockoff. This is not up for debate, and neither is the fact that the Shadow is a moral hero. He is not an anti-hero or a villain. Just because he dresses in dark colors, kills criminals, and has a sinister voice/mien doesn’t make him a villain or some moral horror. It means he reflects the evil of his enemies back at them so that they know, at least subconsciously, how and why they die.
However, this does not make the Shadow a superhero, nor even a proto-superhero. What it makes him is something much older and more primal. Something mankind feels in his conscience, sneaking around the back of his brain, waiting to leap upon him when he reaches for the forbidden fruit once more. Something that reminds man he is not a superior being but a fallen human being who has chosen to serve himself at the expense of others.
The Shadow isn’t human. At least not in the strict sense that a superhero is. The first indicator of this is that we never – to the best of my knowledge – hear or read a story told from the Shadow’s point of view. His worldview, his history, do not shape the narrative of his stories. Those are all told from the point of view of his agents or from the narrator’s perspective.
Yes, the Shadow has a name, and he has a history. Kent Allard spent time in the Orient, where he learned to read men’s minds, before coming back to America and taking the name Lamont Cranston. But this back story is thin and does nothing to shape him – rather, it offers a disguise for the cloaked Shadow. Razofist’s radio re-creation of Danger in the Dark actually puts a fine point on all of the above in that the Shadow’s agent, Margo Lane, is the introductory character and returns as the heroic POV after we stop to listen to the villains as they plot and plan. Margo later asks Lamont why he cannot give up the life of the Shadow and settle down to, perhaps, get married. The Shadow lets her down gently by stating that his mission is not complete yet.
What he doesn’t say, specifically, is what his mission is. That is because the Shadow is not a superhero maintaining law and order, protecting others from a trauma he endured. Rather, the Shadow is an avatar of justice, a servant of Nemesis, the Greek goddess of vengeance. Better put, perhaps, he is a servant of Rome’s Iustia or Justice. In Roman (and American) statuary, Justice is depicted as a blind woman bearing sword and scales. The scales weigh a man’s virtue against his vices, and the sword she wields is meant to deal out punishment for offenses against her.
She is blind because she metes out justice to the wicked, whoever they are. She does not take rank, birth, sex, or any other incidental characteristics into consideration. All that matters to Justice is whether or not the man before her tips the scales toward vice. If he be virtuous, then he lives; if he be wicked, he dies.
Career criminals throughout the centuries have typically believed themselves safe from Justice due to their wealth, power, secrecy, etc. The Shadow, as an emissary of Justice, penetrates these defenses and dispatches the wicked by their own means. These are the criminals the law will not touch, either because they do not know they exist or they are corrupt and ignoring them. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” is the hero’s motto for a reason. He knows what evil hides within men’s souls because Justice tells him where that evil abides before sending him to dispatch it.
The Shadow is a primal creature, an “old god” – or what Andre Norton would have called in her Witch World an “Old One.” He has a human form and/or body, and this can be poisoned, injured, or shot. Yet still he is less man than spirit, in direct contrast to the iconic bat-themed hero he helped to inspire.
Professor Geek actually offers insight to help explicate this in the final moments of the video above, where he reminds viewers that an archetype begins in one position before it settles into a recognizable, stronger pattern that cannot be violated without destroying the character as it exists in a given culture. The Professor’s myriad videos on the Joker add another dimension to this fact. He typically describes the clownish fiend as “an elemental being of chaos.” The Joker is not a foil to Batman and, after a point, like the Shadow he isn’t human. But where the Shadow is an emissary of God’s justice and wrath, the Joker embodies the evil and anarchy of the Prince of Lies.
From here we can turn to Batman himself. As anyone steeped in the lore of the Dark Knight can tell you, he started out as a gun-toting vigilante who would shoot villains and/or throw them from rooftops. Over time, however, he started taking on the crooks the law could not effectively chase down. He stopped killing – in fact, he swore never to do so. Batarangs replaced his guns, which he will no longer touch even in his own defense. He became a sort of dark guardian angel for Gotham.
Unlike the Shadow, Batman takes in orphaned children and raises them as his wards. A few hundred years ago, this would make the various Robins and one or two Batgirls his pages and squires. He has a fatherly relationship with his sidekicks rather than the mentor/student variation seen in Sherlock Holmes, and he does his best to help mentally unstable criminals heal. He also does his best to recognize when some of these broken individuals are going to need constant psychiatric help.
Batman long ago ceased to be an elemental avatar of Justice. For decades, he has been and remains the Dark Knight.
Knights are not elementals. They are not “old gods” or Old Ones who can act as they see fit, leaving mere mortals trembling where they stand. Knights are sworn to serve the king or a liege lord, and for this reason there are limits both to their authority and to the types of actions they can take. A knight may kill in combat if his opponent will not yield, or if he and those somehow in his care are in peril of their lives. He may accidentally (or, yes, “accidentally”) kill a fellow knight in a joust, and he may kill in times of war.
But a knight’s authority is not the sole authority in the land. He answers to someone higher than himself, who in turn answers to the Authority and Author of all life. A knight cannot take justice into his own hands and become judge, jury, and executioner. Not without forfeiting his knighthood, sacred honor, and to some degree his manhood.
For this reason, neither can Batman.
The Shadow is Nemesis, Justice in its elemental form. He is to American literature what these goddesses and the implacable Furies of Greek myth are to Ancient literature: an unstoppable agent of doom who lays the wicked low and sees them destroyed. The Furies would drive men who committed perfidious murder to insanity and death, just as the Shadow carefully orchestrates the deaths of the foes whom he faces, so that their crimes are visited back upon them.
Yes, the Shadow saves lives. But he does not take in, mentor, and raise children. His opponents are not the mentally ill or the weak-willed who could potentially reform. While he has reformed criminals in his service, he states emphatically that their lives are his to use as he sees fit. When a man turns from crime to be a servant of Justice, his life no longer belongs to himself, but to her and her agents. The Shadow, as an agent in the human world of Justice, has the authority to call upon criminals he has reformed and make use of them as he needs – even to the point where he must, perchance, demand they sacrifice their lives for his cause.
Those the Shadow fights and destroys are the blackest, worst examples of humanity. They must be dispatched if anarchy and the rule of Might Makes Right are to be avoided. The audience does not need to know the Shadow’s name, his history, his favorite color, or anything like that precisely because he is an Elemental Force for Justice. We were given a pair of names for him and the sketch of a history, but these are never explored or given more depth for that reason.
That is fine. The Shadow is a primeval being. He is human only when or because he needs to interact with the mortal world. All we need to know about him is that he is a servant of the age-old force the Romans and the Greeks worshiped, that he will destroy the evil that plagues his home, and that the world will be the better for it.
Batman is given a history that defines him, gives him purpose, whereas it is arguable if the Shadow is even human. Yes, he can bleed and be poisoned, but he deliberately muddles the minds of other men using unknown techniques. He stages his retributive acts to appear as though they were committed by some supernatural being, which serves his elemental purpose. Batman is not an elemental force – he is a man dressed as a bat. The bat is his heraldry, but instead of having it on a shield, his entire suit serves to identify him. The Shadow has no need of such an omen because he is beyond the ken of mortals by design, his own and the writers’.
The Dark Knight is a man, a knight, and therefore he is not above the law. He may and can step in where needed when the law fails or when those who serve it cannot touch a particular criminal, as a knight of the Middle Ages would be expected to handle opponents the sheriffs or local police could not. However, dispensing justice the way the Shadow does is not his right by definition of his archetype. The law requires the knight take the offender to the king, the marshal, or a judge. A knight could not do otherwise without breaking fealty with his lord.
Batman’s fealty is to American law, and while it’s agents may be corrupt, that does not mean the higher authority is corrupt. Even if there is corruption in the higher courts or elsewhere in the country, his personal “fiefdom” is Gotham. Any law passed outside of it or which has some basis elsewhere is not something he could do anything to fight, any more than knights like Sir Richard (from Robin Hood and the Knight as retold by Mary Macleod in The Junior Classics, Vol. 4: Heroes and Heroines of Chivalry) could naysay the Sheriff of Nottingham’s control of said town. The town is outside Sir Richard’s jurisdiction; he cannot tell the Sheriff what to do, but the Sheriff may hold Sir Richard for any cause he deems viable.
“Yeah, well, if Batman’s a knight, then why doesn’t he kill the Joker?” Good question! Luckily, there is a very good answer that fits the Dark Knight and the Middle Ages’ knight perfectly.
As Professor Geek says, the Joker is an Elemental Force. He is chaos personified, chaos that seeks destruction because it knows no other joy nor desire. Much as the Knights of the Round Table allow Morgan le Fay (who is a fairy in some of the legends) to live when it would perhaps be better to kill her, and the Norse allow some of their enemies (or their ‘allies’ like Loki) to live, there are certain Elements which men cannot destroy or chain permanently. The Joker, in real life, would be executed and the Shadow would certainly kill him. But the Shadow could do so because he is the embodiment of the counterforce to the Joker; he is order personified, the opposite of the Joker’s chaotic nihilism and worship of death.
Standing between these two is Batman, a man who can neither chain nor kill chaos since it would simply find another avatar. Much as the Joker ought to be destroyed, due to his Fae position as an elemental force within DC Comics, he cannot permanently be destroyed. If he did die or was killed, chaos would simply find a new human to take to its bosom and make its incarnation.
In addition, as Professor Geek points out, the Joker shapes Batman and is given purpose by the Dark Knight himself. Without Batman, the Joker has no reason to exist, whereas without the Joker, Batman would lack the strength he needs resist the chaos inside him. The Joker’s aim is to break Batman as a demon would try to destroy a chivalrous knight, and Batman’s strength in battle with the Joker comes from holding to his code in spite of the pressure the Joker exerts on him. His battles with the Joker appear external but are, in fact, internal. The Joker is not trying to physically kill Batman but to spiritually break him. To make the Dark Knight a dispossessed wreck of a man who had forsaken his code and his beliefs.
The Shadow cannot be broken. He cannot be corrupted and he cannot be stopped. He is the Element of Justice in a world that tries desperately to ignore it. He has no name, no face, or history that matters in the way Batman’s does precisely because his duty is to mete out the punishment criminals have earned.
Not all of the Shadow’s enemies are killed, either. For as long as time and man exist in this world, there will always be evil. Justice wins in the end, but this is not the End. The Shadow will always have his own villains and evils to fight, those who elude him and “die peacefully in their beds.” Their reward for their perfidy will be no less horrible than those he kills, but the fact remains that he cannot kill every villain in the world.
This differentiates the Shadow and Batman from Marvel’s Punisher. A man with a death wish, the Punisher is lost in a maze of self-pity, a human trying to be an avatar of justice. He fails miserably precisely because it is something no mortal man can do. The Punisher is not an avatar of justice nor is he a knight; he is an outlaw with the barest outline of a code. He is a man trying to die, to punish himself for a perceived failure and a loss he could not prevent. At the same time that he does this, he indulges in his base desire for blood. He tries to make himself a god of the underworld, deciding who lives and dies, and he fails. It is this which typically drives him to the brink of insanity over and over again in his gory crusade against crime.
The Shadow, Batman, and the Punisher all serve a purpose. We need the Furies, the elemental forces of Justice that destroy evil, as much as we need the knight who saves children and tries to help the mentally ill. We need the reminder that men are not gods, that we cannot arrogate God’s justice to ourselves and try to dispense it by violence. The Shadow is not better than Batman or vice versa; they are each representative of archetypes in the wider American canon of fiction and fill a niche in the psyche of readers everywhere. They are, respectively, the American interpretation of Nemesis and the knight errant.
It does not matter if this was the writers’ intention. As Professor Geek says in the video at the start of this post, archetypes often begin in one form and then eventually settle into a stronger, more recognizable one later on. Do enough research into Ancient Greek myth and you will find the encyclopedias themselves try to tell you how and where the gods sprang from before the Greeks decided on how they would act and what they would embody. The same occurs here and now before our very eyes today.
One may prefer the Shadow or Batman to the other, as one is free to prefer the Punisher to both. But from the perspective of a cultural canon and cast of characters, an understanding of the human psyche, and the image of a healthy society, all three characters are necessary. They all serve a role in the greater or national culture and none can be left out, for that would weaken or even destabilize the structure they are meant to uphold.
It goes without saying we are witnessing that attempted destruction in real-time. Oddly enough, the Shadow himself is in better shape than Batman or the Punisher, in part perhaps because he is not seen as a lucrative option to market by the entertainment industry. He will, however, become so again with ease. It may take longer to rehabilitate Batman and the Punisher, but they ought not be discarded from our national canon just because the short-sighted bend and twist them to serve their own ends.
If another country’s heroes were treated by that nation’s conquerors as ours have been for the last two decades, we would not cheer that destruction. We would, instead, do everything in our power to help preserve them. If it were even suggested we stand aside and let valuable tales be eradicated from another country’s fictional canon, the hue and cry would be deafening. What reason do we have to let it happen to our homegrown heroes?
Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work, readers. The future needs us. It needs these characters, too. I suggest we do them – and the generations who came before us – proud.
It certainly can’t hurt to try.