Dennis O’Neil: Happy, Happy Batday Baby…

batdaySo look! We have a new holiday. I don’t know exactly where to slot this one in the holiday calendar (and surely such a thing must exist) – probably somewhere south of all those presidents among the feasts that don’t actually embody a human need but are celebrated because someone said they should be. Not up there with Christmas or Easter, which are actually about something.

I refer, of course (of course!) to Batman Day, celebrated on July 23rd. The cynic in me opines that Batman Day is probably the brainchild of some marketing guy hunkered in one of those mid-Manhattan skyscrapers But I’m not certain and… I don’t know – maybe there was a St. Batman.

The character is arguably popular enough to merit his own holiday, which might lead us to a question I’ve been asked once or twice: why?

I shrug, and smile, and admit that I don’t know. Let us table the matter until somebody smart can attend to it.

Or take a clumsy-ass shot at answering it.

Begin with the iconography. He looks evil, with the dark and scalloped cloak and the horned skull. Squint a bit and can’t you see an avatar of he damned? He inhabits the night, the traditional realm of bloodsuckers and soul stealers and the unfortunates forced to confront him encounter someone or something cold and ruthless and implacable. Nothing warm and cuddly here, nothing you’d want to take home to mom, unless mom lives in an asylum.

But these darkling creatures, inhabitants of areas devoid of even a glimmer of light…they fascinate us. We respond to villains, maybe because they can’t really hurt us; watching them is a bit like riding a roller coaster: the thrill of danger that isn’t dangerous.

Or maybe – and now we descend into murk and psychology – maybe we see in their villainy fragments of ourselves; cruelty and selfishness we relegate to our shadow selves where they hide from everyone, including us. Maybe especially us.

Which brings us back around to Batman. (We will continue to assume that he hasn’t been canonized.) He looks mean and pitiless, someone given to ripping out hearts, but he’s on our side. His bleak self is at our service. Demonic though he is, he’s our demon. We get to hero worship and, at the same time, enjoy whatever pleasure we get from contemplating evil from a safe distance.

There is a fairy-tale aspect to the Batman mythos and that, too, may be an element of his popularity. At the center of the Batman saga is a story that presents a child’s most horrifying nightmare, witnessing the slaying of parents. By experiencing this trauma vicariously, though the psyche of the Batman-to-be we, are able to face it, process it and finally integrate it. We identify with Batman’s survival of the tragedy and that reassures us. See?You can get through the nightmare. If this theory is valid, the Batman tale is a specialized instance of what the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim says often happens when children interact with stories.

Finally, there is the matter of the mask. Batman wears one and so do most of us and we have ever since we figured out that mommy will give us a treat if we behave one way and a frown if we behave another way and, hey, doesn’t this make Batman our (gloomy/saturnine/grouchy) brother?

And a happy Batday to you, bro.