Fear of a Black Batman and the Comeuppance for White Supremacy

On January 5th, DC Comics made history.

For the first time in Batman’s 82-year publishing history, their mainstream superhero universe featured a Black man in the role of the Dark Knight with the publication of “The Next Batman”.

Written by John Ridley, screenwriter of “12 Years A Slave” and the ABC television series “American Crime”, the introduction story with the new Batman was among DC Comics’ most publicized events in 2020. Batman is unarguably the publisher’s most profitable character. His titles occupied multiple spots within the top ten highest-selling comic books from July through December of 2020, based on listings from ICV2.com, a website focused on the business aspects of the comic book industry and its Direct Market of comic book retailers, distributors, and publishers.

Historically, both DC Comics and their chief rival Marvel have replaced White versions of their superheroes with characters from diverse backgrounds. These changes have earned both publishers the ire of a contingent of comic book fans and organizations specializing in online harassment and life-threatening scare tactics against people of color, women, queer people, and disabled persons.

First published in 1939 in Detective Comics #27 and created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger, The Batman character has represented the fantasy ideal of White male empowerment. In the face of personal tragedy, a young White boy born into wealth uses his inherited fortune and formative years to develop his physical body and mind into a perfect machine. The optimal human being using his financial means to fund a covert military-style operational apparatus, allowing him to dispense his version of justice without any consequences from the authorities and, in fact supported by the Commissioner of Police.

Throughout the eight decades of the character’s publication and presence in various forms of media, the main version of Batman has always been a White male with a legacy empowering him to be a vigilante, using technology, intuition, and combat to hold the line against enemies dedicated to disrupting the order of his city.

When that archetype is examined with a Black man in the role, the result is not simply cosmetic. The difference is profound, lying within the nuances that emerge when the heroic ideal is represented through a different cultural lens. One informed by survival in the face of enslavement, assault, and murder on physical, psychological, and emotional levels. Informed by an extraordinary stamina, developed through enduring systemic sabotage of educational opportunities and economic reward.

Wealth is the most seductive superpower that makes Batman’s brand of heroism particularly attractive. A fantasy with an aspirational, Capitalistic component.

On reading the introductory story of “The Next Batman”, a full twenty-two pages, a noteworthy fact is that the secret identity of Batman is not revealed.

Based on the publicity which included interviews with writer John Ridley, it is certain that Batman is Black and his secret identity is mentioned with specificity. However, at no point in the first story does the visual moment in which the coexistence of the Batman identity and the Blackness of the man inhabiting the costume exist.

Most of us will never know why the moment of visual confirmation of a Black Batman was reserved exclusively for special covers but not the story inside the first issue of the series. We can speculate and intuit, to arrive at any number of assumptions or conclusions.

Here’s one: the existence of White Supremacy requires the continued dehumanization of the Black person. It will not allow the Black person to be viewed as a human being or a humane being, thus perpetuating the horrifyingly ridiculous idea that the Black person is not entitled to equal treatment under any law, much less the rewards of equal opportunities.

If one of the world’s archetypal and marketable fantasy characters embodying White male empowerment is represented by a Black character, it flies in the face of White Supremacy. Could it possibly be any more just and symbolic, any more noble in statement, to show that a Black Batman is the same as any Batman by not fixating on the ethnic background of the character?

Is the anonymity within the story the metaphor for the existential truth of the equality of all people, and specifically the Black man in relation to any White man, be he peer or predecessor?

This was the assumption I subscribed to, ready to continue the journey with this new Batman, one whose time was on time, during a time of great polarization in this nation and beyond. This was my feeling on Tuesday, January the 5th.

On Wednesday, January 6th, America was the center of historic action as the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. was forcefully invaded by a group of citizens engaging in violent rioting, to prevent Congress from certifying the electoral vote-win of Joseph Biden to the position of President of the United States.

Galvanized by a speech from Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, the rioters’ actions outside the Capitol building escalated into a series of forceful confrontations and brutal acts inside the Capitol, leading to the deaths of five people.

While the issue of election fraud was used by the President as the anchor for the protest, historically his time in office has been defined through promoting xenophobia, racism, sexism, and the ideologies of terrorist organizations ranging from a neo-nazi movement to a group specializing in conspiracy theories to characterize a significant number of Americans as deviants and thieves, based on their political party of allegiance.

Underneath the slogan of “Make America Great Again” and the seemingly unending chant of “U.S.A.” and the loyalty to the President in office was the specter of White Supremacy. The quantum mechanics of racism underneath the visible structure of supposed protest, the supposed fight for what is just, the supposed heroism of communal challenge to a crime of national import.

The arrogant empowerment of this American Legion who marched to make America White again, and chant for the United States of Whiteness, pledging their loyalty to the White male heterosexual Narcissist with the same wealth superpower of a superhero, was both enabled and validated by an inadequate police response at the Capitol building.

Seven months prior at the Lincoln Memorial, a protest on the part of Black Lives Matter, a global organization and movement dedicated to the increased awareness and eventual end of the unwarranted slaughter of Black people by police officers, was met with the quiet and threatening opposition of the National Guard.

An intimidating show of force was utilized to confront American citizens engaging in peaceful action to stand up against systemic racism, because it was a cause galvanized by Black people in defense of Black lives with the identifier of Blackness incorporated into the organization’s very name.

Black Lives Matter did not have the superpower of White Supremacy, the manifestation of which resulted in insurrectionist action and fatal consequences of a degree which compelled everything from arrests to the abandonment of influential social media giants to the threat of a second impeachment of this nation’s President, himself being accused of sedition.

Every day since the 6th of January has presented new developments and revelations, new pivots from politicians, new depths of depravity made publicly known, and stronger resolve from both sides, those who would serve to protect human life and national democracy, and those who would smear both with their actions as easily as rioters smeared fecal matter across the walls and floors of the Capitol building. An imagined confederacy at war with an existing democracy, with each collection of videos and news articles and television specials bombarding us with the reminders that the former means to subjugate and eliminate Black people while the latter is not entirely dedicated to the protection of Black people.

Global society is transforming every day under the weight of the cumulative effect of racism and its aftermaths, and one of the landscapes on which this mutation of ideologies is happening is that of story. Chickens have come home to roost throughout the entertainment industry, with companies far and wide dedicated to wide-sweeping changes and initiatives to provide more opportunities for Black people on the creation, production, financing, and execution of story.

The comic book is one of the few story vehicles which can be produced rather quickly, relative to other forms of media which combine narrative with images. In the time it takes to make one film, a company can produce and publish between six and twelve comic books of a series. Twice the amount for the time it takes to make a video game. Comic books are uniquely positioned to deliver ideals and compelling themes with considerable efficacy in a short amount of time, which is one of the reasons writers from more lucrative creative fields found themselves attracted to the comic book industry.

Comic book mythologies are the source material for worldwide cinematic stories, empowering corporations to play the long hand for a profit gain and enviable library of product elusive to most of their peers, as evidenced by the recent Disney Investor Day video presentation by Marvel Studios’ President Kevin Feige and the subsequent day’s record-breaking value of Disney stock. The continued existence of the comic book maintains the regular presence and touch points of intellectual properties that will continue to find their way to the masses in various interpretations, seemingly until the end of time.

The impact of the comic book is not to be underestimated, and neither is the iconic power of The Batman.

If the events of January 6th and the week that followed, and the weeks that will follow tell us anything about White Supremacy and the collective ideological hubris of its agents and supporters, it’s that accepting defeat or relenting to the law of democracy is not on the menu, and escalation is always inevitable. The messaging that opposes White Supremacy must meet that challenge with consistent passion, consistent action, consistent production, and consistent agency.

In this America, which every day threatens to prove itself to be two Americas, the idea of a Black Batman that will not show the world his Black face upon introduction is no longer compelling. The strategy and nuance of the approach may not inspire the continued following of the character’s journey, beyond the gratification of general monthly entertainment.

The Black Batman fantasy is not a thing of profound agency for Black America, because White Supremacy is steeped in the centuries-old tradition of the destruction and desecration of Black bodies, and the results of wholesale murder of Black parents and Black children leads to variations of trauma that will not end with impotent symbolism on the other side. White Supremacy wants the Black family destroyed, wants the survivors to live in the dark caves of their pain and never emerge in the light of hope or aspiration, wants the Black survivor to stay down…or rise up in emotional and physical aggression, so as to “prove” to society-at-large that the Black person was, is, and always will be an animal.

White Supremacy’s efforts to dehumanize Black America are in proportion to its fear of the imagined comeuppance, the “eye for an eye”, the “turnabout is fair play”, the equivalent justice for all crimes suffered and indignities endured, that which The Black People will rain down upon them if the community ever achieves equal power and standing. It cannot withstand or comprehend Black Magnanimity, the capacity to collectively work toward a better world without attacking and murdering the subjugators en masse.

Within the context of Black Magnanimity is the collection of stories that will pave the way for a better world of understanding, empathy, and reckoning. Stories reflecting the wide variety of experiences of being Black within an oppressive environment, persevering despite the toxicity and bile of White Supremacy. Stories penned by the oppressed and injected into the world.

Unflinching stories. Some of which will be delivered in the form of the comic book.

The Black Batman will have his reign as the defender and protector of Gotham City, and his time in the costume will be indelibly marked in the stone of the DC Comics continuity, but superhero comic books are the sophisticated soap operas of our time, and reality will inevitably snap back to the core version of the archetypal character the general populace appreciates.

America cannot be allowed to follow suit and snap back to its past of unchallenged White Supremacy, and the world needs heroes, fictional and real, who will show their faces.

A writer, editor, columnist, and public speaker from Brooklyn, NY. His upcoming graphic novel “MPLS SOUND” featuring Prince debuts April 2021. josephillidge.com