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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Triumph of Joe Chill:

Inspired by Ragnell's post on the Wonder Woman un-retcon, I thought I'd post about *my* favorite un-retcon, which is the re-establishment of Joe Chill as Batman's parents' murderer.

Why Joe Chill Works For Me
Ever since the Crisis, Batman's been considerably darker than his past incarnations. Some of this is because of DKR, some because of the Tim Burton movie, some of it's just because it's more fun that way. Superman and Wonder Woman are good for the standard heroics so it's fun to have a dark mirror of this.

And I can't deny that there is something fun about the scariest man in the DC Universe being the one with no powers what so ever.

But then, somewhere in the 90s, I think the writing staff forgot their direction with him. Batman was on a scary downward slope of borderline psychopathy. And it just kept getting worse. By the 2000s, he'd pretty much ruined his relationship with his surviving adopted son, gone to even brutal lengths to build his current Robin as his successor, made himself the boogeyman of the Justice League (even retconned back, so that it was somehow plausible that his *friends* would unanimously vote to wipe his mind). Even the relationship with Cassandra, which was the closest thing he had to anything humanizing was disturbingly written, as he ignored everything about her that didn't fit his ideal, and ignored Barbara's wise maternal advice and concern for the girl's development by making her a living symbol of the mission.

There was an important symbolism in the last batgirl issue, when Shiva was pulling out the devices from the bat belt remarking about how little they were used and asking ironically how many *she* invented. She had a serious point, Bruce might have been her father figure, but it was just like Cain. He'd been pushing her into a role that she might have wanted, but was ill suited to. A fact that Barbara *tried* to bring to his attention, but he ignored. (The Batgirl book had some very disturbing themes, IMO.)

Countdown to Infinite Crisis almost made Bruce completely irredeemable. His disregard for a former colleague (one that hadn't been around for the mindwipe, I must add) was a direct contributer to his death. His paranoia, used against the JLA before, was used again in the form of Brother Eye. Not only is Bruce a paranoid psycho, but one who didn't even learn.

Infinite Crisis was a start, Kal-L's telling Bruce that a version of him was happy with Selina was a part of it. The realization that Bruce was the archetect of his own unhappiness, *not* the phantom murderer of his parents. He even reconciled with Dick and sought to bridge things with Tim...

OYL, Batman is a new man. He's still driven and dark, with scary, scary presence. But he's not as unbalanced. He's making an effort with Tim and Selina, even making peace with Bullock, and there's a genuinely new maturity about him. Post Crisis Batman seemed like some part of him never made it past the age of his parents' murder, everything was black and white to him like a child's view, and he couldn't ever quite get past that. Now, he seems older. *At least* an adolescent.

And I think Joe Chill's restoration is an important part of this. Necessary as the means to drag Bruce out of his downward spiral.

See, as long as Bruce's parents' murderer was unknown, Bruce was *losing* his battle on the streets. It was clear that he looked at each would be mugger, robber and murderer as though he or she were the one who killed his mom and dad. And each one he put away, another one would turn up. Each capture was a failure because his own phantom was still out there.

As long as this was the case, he was doomed to the downward spiral. *No one* can take that much futile defeat and stay sane or whole.

But Joe Chill means that Bruce has a face to put to the name, so each criminal he catches *isn't* his parents' murderer. And this has a very distinct and important difference in Batman's world view.

I think the major difference between the more adult pre-crisis Batman and the angry, crusading psycho of the post-crisis years isn't the amount of humor or darkness in the story, it was in the scope of the character. Pre-Crisis Batman was about the victims, about making sure no one else suffered the way he had. Each time he caught someone was a triumph. It meant fewer victims, fewer crying orphans. Sure there are more out there, but that's a small triumph that's going to be the part of something big.

Post-Crisis Batman was about the criminals. The victims were almost afterthoughts, really. He wanted to find *his* looming phantom in that mess. He was the spirit of vengeance and had nearly become as inhuman as the people he fought. Being so focused on the capture of criminals meant, again, that he was forever going to be defeated. It creates a depressing pessimism, no matter what he does, more criminals will come. What's the *point*? The mission was swallowing him alive.

But OYL Batman seems to be more like Pre-Crisis than his Post-Crisis version. He's still dark and driven, the tragedy in his past has still shaped him to be the man he is today, but there's a subtle shift in his tone. There's an optimism there again, like each capture of a criminal is important again. It's a triumph again. Less victims, less suffering. It *means* something. And it's not about him anymore, except that these are his enemies and his people who need help.

And Bruce seems to be once more the man behind the mask, rather than Batman's facade for interacting with ordinary people. *Bruce* is the one talking to his friend Jim. Bruce is the one trying very hard to make peace with Selina, to show Tim the support he needs without being smothering, the one who gives Bullock another chance (while acknowledging Bullock's own verbal counteroffensive), expresses concern for Cassandra, and at least tried to reconcile with Dick.

I'm liking this man now. For the first time ever. And I attribute that to Joe Chill.

Joe Chill paints Batman's not killing in a new, more mature light. The choice of whether to kill or not is a personal one for heroes and is a turning point in the character. Whether they do or not, it's a growth moment. Batman didn't have this because with him, the not-killing was portrayed as more of an attempt to hold on to himself and not fall completely into the darkness surrounding him.

It was a drowning man clinging to one last rope rather than a growth moment.

But now, it's an expression of personal growth. He knows who Joe Chill is. And he knows that the death of the criminal means nothing in the long run. Martha and Thomas Wayne are still dead. Bruce has still grown up alone but for Alfred. Bruce has still become Batman. Where before his refusal to kill seemed almost more out of desperation than anything else, *now* it's a fully informed choice. He understands the futility of vengeance. He wants something beyond that.

I'm also hoping the whole Joe Chill dying to save Bruce Wayne ends up in continuity too, because then that is a real beam of light in the darkness. That is living proof to Bruce that the worst person still has something of humanity inside of him. That redemption, if only a little, is possible. It's *hope*, and Gotham has needed hope for a very long time.

Gotham's still dark. Batman's still a brooding creepy shadow dwellling guy. But I think this Joe Chill stuff made a subtle but important change in the DCU

The Bat-signal is supposed to only scare the criminals of Gotham, to the rest of the city, it should be a symbol of hope.

And I think it might be that way again. *Finally*.


  • At May 10, 2006 9:24 AM, Blogger Diamondrock said…

    Be what it may, Joe Chill will always be an incredibly stupid and idiotic name.

  • At May 10, 2006 9:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hmm. You make some excellent points. To me it just read like they were changing continuity to match up with Batman Begins, so fans of that movie who pick up a comic book won't be confused.

    Which is stupid.

  • At May 10, 2006 9:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Eliminating Joe Chill from Batman's past was one of the four biggest post-Crisis mistakes DC made (along with moving Wonder Woman's origin up to post-Crisis, eliminating Superboy altogether, and also: Hawkman). Admittedly, I think it was actually a post-Zero Hour revision (which is why the 90s version of Batman got so depressing, I think), but its still technically post-Crisis, so I'll count it.

    Without the closure from Joe Chill Batman could STILL be a heroic figure, but its also easier for him to be written by hacks into a brooding loner out for revenge on a world that took his parents away from him (which, amazingly, is exactly how he's been written for the last decade plus). I've said for years that the changes that they made to Batman's past essentially make him a spoiled brat taking his pain out on the world rather than dealing with his issues like an adult.

    I think Joe Chill was eliminated originally because the folks running the Batman office (Denny O'Neil, I believe) couldn't understand what would keep Batman motivated to be a vigilante if he'd captured his parents' killer - that once that happened he'd stop.

    It was the same mistake that so many folks made in the 90s - confusing the real world for the world in the comics. Sure in the real world some kind of external motivation is probably necessary to keep the guy dressing up like a bat every night - that and the fact that he'd be a total nutjob. But in comics, even after he found his parents' killer he can keep doing it just because he's a superhero - you don't need faux realism to make it work, people will believe that Batman does it because he thinks its the right thing to do (and it helps if you actually SHOW IT to be the right thing to do - I can't count the number of times in the last decade that I've wondered, given the damage that Batman has done to his own cause, why he doesn't just hang up the cape and focus on charity work or something).

    Finally, maybe we'll start to see some of the Batman stories that I liked as a kid - the ones where Batman was the type of guy who was worth idolizing - a real hero, and not this whiny, angry nutjob that's been running around for 15 years...

  • At May 10, 2006 10:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Jer: you're correct; it was Post-ZH that Joe Chill was erased from continuity, one of the many Denny O'Neil decisions in the 90s that were wrong, wrong, WRONG.

    Anyone else find it amusing that O'Neil and Frank Miller despise each other allegedly, and yet under O'Neil's auspices Batman becaume more like the bullying prick of DKR?

    I'm glad Joe Chill is back, though. It puts one of my favorite Batman Stories, The Untold Legend of the Batman, back in continuity. Sort of.

    BUt it doesn't matter, really, as IC#7 will sure to be retconned out 20 years from now by the Waids, Johns, and Ruckas of the next generation...

  • At May 10, 2006 11:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You make a very good point about pre-Crisis Batman being about the victims, and post-Crisis about the criminals. Hopefully, concern for victims is making a comeback.
    The best part about Chill's return: it's a better idea than Metallo killing the Waynes...

  • At May 10, 2006 12:42 PM, Blogger Marc Burkhardt said…

    I'm starting a post that makes this very point.

    To me, Batman was always about self-sacrifice. He could live a comfortable life as a millionaire playboy, but instead fights crime so others will never feel the pain or loneliness he felt as a child.

    That's why he showed compassion to Robin after Dick's parents were killed.

    That is why he serves as a father figure, rather than master manipulator, of the Bat-family.

    And that is why he is an inspiration, rather than a nut-case who should be thrown in the slammer.

    I always found it sad that people like Denny O'Neil couldn't understand it. I guess we live in a very cynical age.

    P.s. The golden-age story where Batman catches Joe Chill is even better. In a very dramatic scene, Bruce unmasks himself before the murderer. Chill, in shock, runs to his fellow gangsters and confesses he created the Batman. His pals, reasonable sorts, get p!ssed and shoot him dead.

  • At May 10, 2006 1:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    AnthonyF is half-right: I'm pretty sure that the decision to reinstate Joe Chill's capture and death was inspired by Batman Begins.

    I don't think that's stupid, though, and I don't think it was to avoid confusing fans of the movie. A while back, someone in my Livejournal growled about a recent JLU episode, and asked, "why can't they can never get things RIGHT?"

    Sometimes, "They" -- the writers for the movies and the cartoons -- get it more "right" than the comics -- or pick the RIGHT "right" from all the possible permutations -- and when they do, the comics will occasionally follow suit. Restoring Lex and Clark's childhood relationship is one such instance. Restoring Joe Chill was another.

    Denny retconned Joe out of the picture because he didn't think that Bruce would have a motivation if his childhood trauma was actually resolved. Nolan demonstrated that, ultimately, that kind of personal revenge was meaningless, that it wasn't what drives Batman.

    Personally, I'd like them to do a revised version of the story ON-CAMERA. Have Batman discover who murdered his parents, capture him, and perhaps have him die (saving Bruce's life is a nice variant). Spend an issue or so with him at his parents' grave, saying, okay, it's over, I don't have to do this anymore...

    And then realizing that, no, he's not DRIVEN, he's not OBSESSED -- but he's NEEDED. Gotham needs the Batman. The WORLD needs the Batman.

    And most importantly, PEOPLE need the Batman.

    And then all the changes in tone and focus and personality will follow.

    Keep the psycho-obsessive phase in continuity -- but as time goes on and the inevitable temporal compression of comics history occurs, it'll eventually become a brief phase in his early development in the role, rather than the major shape of the character for over a decade.

    I rather hope we get to see this in 52 -- perhaps it's something that HAPPENED in that One Year.

  • At May 10, 2006 1:47 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    diamondrock: Yep, but let's just assume it's a criminal alias and ignore any evidence to the contrary.

    I hereby declare his real last name to be Winters. :-)

    anthonyf: I get that, but I think it's more that they noticed how in the movie, Bruce could actually be adult and somewhat sane, and someone figured out that knowing his parents' murderer could, in a psychological sense contribute to that closure.

    jer: I'd like that too. I want to like Batman, but it's not till OYL that he's ever seemed worth liking. Now I'm at the very least intrigued.

    dan: Huh, I didn't know that. Well, O'Neil did know what sells, and at the time, with DKR and the movies, he probably figured that's what people wanted.

    And retconning is a part of life. I'll enjoy it while it lasts. :-)

    chuck: *metallo*?! Egads.

    keeper: Looking forward to reading it, and agree. The GA story sounds like a blast.

    athelind: I'd like that too!

    (Sorry, I'd post longer discussion, but I'm running out the door. :-))

  • At May 10, 2006 11:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Kalinara: Yes, Metallo. Hinted at in the first Superman/Batman arc. Superboy punched Jeph Loeb all the way to Marvel, thankfully... where now it's our turn to suffer.

  • At May 11, 2006 2:36 AM, Blogger JP said…

    Good post.
    'Pre-Crisis Batman was about the victims, about making sure no one else suffered the way he had.'

    True, but 'd just lke to point to th epost-Knightfall Doug Moench/Kelley Jones run as a fleeting moment when this was not the case. There's one issue where he even apologises to the bones of a grave-desecrator he has captured. I realise that sounds kinda melodramatic, but it is actualy handled pretty well. The Moench/Jones run really deserves a trade.

  • At May 11, 2006 2:41 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    dan: *Metallo*. I can't get over that.

    JP: Good point. :-) I'd forgotten that story. But I'd say in general, my comparison still stands. :-)

  • At December 22, 2006 11:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I think Joe Chill was a very jelous mobster. Mr. and Mrs. Wayne and their son, Bruce were a wonderful family. Chill was very jelous of that so he went out killing Mr. and Mrs. Wayne. He probably wanted to have that kind of wealth and love. As it turns out Bruce and his folks were successful people and Joe wasn't. His jelousy really got to his head. Anyways that is how sick people really are. Hollywood and Disney really can teach the truth.


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