A Comparative Methodology of King David and Batman
There is darkness in the human heart, even if the heart beats in the chest of an innocent man, a superhero, or a king. The trick to revealing the severity of this darkness is to reveal the fullness of the individual in question. Many times, people are shown the best qualities and characteristics of others as if there are no faults to be unveiled. Take for instance the imagery of a superhero, a benevolent hero who possess extraordinary powers and fights crime in the name of justice. Living life as an ordinary citizen, yet possessing abilities of unordinary standards. However, under the facade of invincibility, there is always a link to vulnerability; a hint of normalcy that no hero is capable of avoiding. It is that hint of normalcy which will drive the focus of this essay. When one understands the methodology of a comic book hero such as Batman, then one can unbury the secrets of Israel’s complex king and the corrupt nation he was destined to lead.
Batman: A Hero Driven By Revenge
There is no denying that Bruce Wayne has a troubled past and difficult upbringing. Between the age of 8-10 (depending on the story you follow) he witnesses the brutal murder of his two parents during a robbery. As he watched the life bleed out of the two people who loved him the most, young Bruce made a vow to fight against the war of crime in vengeance. Most certainly a dramatic vow for such a young man to make, but with his parents’ blood still dripping from his hands, it was a vow that most certainly would change the course of Bruce’s life. Just imagining this scene brings a churning in people’s gut for a call to action: a call to justice. Bruce serves as a poster boy for post-traumatic growth and how turmoil can lead an individual to a stronger calling to success. Does the creation of Batman serve as a vehicle to bring justice into a corrupt city or a facade to mask a deeper reality? Simply look at how the Dark Knight chooses to present himself in his black, caped bat costume; this is undoubtedly an effort to frighten criminals.
Bruce Wayne is a clever man with high intelligence and high emotional quotient, which surely is a sign that he is in the right frame of mind. Even his decision to create a persona that is not fully human and appears to be incorruptible is a clever ploy against his enemies; of course he would want to provoke fear in the hearts of his enemies. However, as those designating themselves to the proper study of this masked hero, we revert back to the original question: are Batman’s actions motivated by justice or revenge?
An Unappreciated and Unrecognized Hero of Gotham
When seeking an answer to this difficult question, the safest place to find an answer would be those closest to Bruce. With his parents being slaughtered and no family to fall back to, the closest thing Bruce had to family was the family butler, Alfred. Alfred once says about Batman:
He is at his best when cornered. Faced with the possibility of death, most of us descend into the throes of panic. But not the Batman. They think he will somehow be afraid of them. Frightened by their twisted faces, contorted with evil. They don’t understand he is not seeing their faces in the struggle, but the face of the one who killed his parents. . . It’s what gives him strength to face any opponent. The Batman endures because his sorrow has been channeled into a white hot righteousness. As a child he could only watch as his parents bled to death in the street. He refused to ever feel that hopelessness again.
Alfred sees something in Batman that many readers fail to see because he knows the man behind the mask. If one solely looks at the external features of a hero (their acclaimed accomplishments, their supernatural abilities, their popularity in society), then they are blind to the man that is wearing the mask. Alfred does not see Batman, but rather the young Bruce Wayne living inside the mask, who was escorted home that bloody night with a glazed look in his eyes and revenge resting heavily on his heart. Finally, one is left wondering: ‘Why should such an individual, driven by an unconstrained rage, be left free to commit ugly acts in the name of justice?’ It is because Batman may not be the hero Gotham wants, but he is the hero that Gotham needs. He is the image of justice, a deliverer from Gotham’s current state, and the only glimpse of hope this city has.
The Corrupt City of Gotham
In order to better understand the actions of Batman, one must establish the context where he is found. Gotham is a dark place, full of shadows, corruption, and bad intentions. However, underneath the grime, graffiti, and dark forbade, there is goodness, too. There are those who believe there is a spark worth preserving in this desperate city; there are those who see the beauty underneath. Some still see the spirit of the city and believe it is possible, somehow, to redeem it. Yet, despite the visions of a fully restored city, nobody seems to be taking action to fulfill this vision. And so, Gotham sits in the grime it first found itself, waiting for a deliverer while digging its own grave. This deliver wore the logo of a bat on his chest.
Now, in a place where criminals once maneuvered freely around the sleepless efforts of the Gotham City Police Department, they are met with the force of Batman. The only way the criminals could continue their evil ways was to kill the Gotham’s deliverer, a task which Batman seemed to make increasingly more and more difficult to accomplish.This had the effect of making criminals hyper vigilant, paranoid, and even more violent to counter Batman’s overwhelming capabilities. If they wanted to remain in business, they would have to choose more aggressive or insidious tactics to survive a man who did not care about police procedure and investigation. Like bacteria responding to a new antibiotic, the criminals of Gotham became tougher, smarter, and more crafty. It is amazing to stop here and imagine that the only way to counter the superhuman qualities of Batman is to produce the same status of evil.
The symbiotic relationship between Batman and Gotham has made some of the most compelling readings of all the DC comics. While most are able to picture the shining Metropolis without Superman, one could not possibly see Gotham without Batman. Flipping that around, if Batman had grownup in a different city, such as Coast City or Smallville, he most certainly would have grown into someone (or something) different. Batman is a creature of Gotham, a product of its streets as much as Scarecrow, Catwoman, and the Joker. He is the product of a child growing up in a corrupt world and a continuation of the deadly cycle we see in Gotham. Would Gotham be better without Batman? Most certainly not. Now that great evil resides in Gotham, only great heroism can save it.
The Legend of Batman
This portrayal of Batman falls far short of the image many children grow up thinking of the Dark Knight. Once the fame, skills, and mask are shed off, the only thing left is a broken man seeking justice through his own power. Batman is greater than Bruce Wayne, and though Bruce Wayne is the creator and sustainer of Batman, the power will always be in the mask. In the case of Batman, his power is not only strengthened by the mask, but the metaphorical mask of vengeance he inherited in his parents’ death. The power of Batman is not in the man that lives inside the mask, but his power resides in the symbol of the Batman. David was a similar symbol for the corrupt and broken Israel in which David was molded to secure.
David as a comic book hero
David’s story had a bit of a glow about it, almost like a comic book or fairy tale. David comes storming into the Biblical narrative as the tall, handsome hero, the worthiest of his household. Later on, King David is portrayed as a wealthy, playboy with a knack for embarrassing his enemies with his strategic fighting skills. Does this sound like anyone familiar? Robert Alter refers to this heroic presence surrounding the story of David as “folkloric embellishments.” (Alter, 35) “The life story of David is richly decorated with heroic exploits and romantic encounters that owe more to folklore and fairy tale that to history or theology.” (Kirsch, 46) Jonthan Kirsch gives a great example of this in his book King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel:
. . . Samuel’s search for the new king suggests [a fairy tale like story]. Even the number of sons that Samuel ruled out before finally reaching David seems slightly fanciful: seven is a richly symbolic number throughout the Bible, and the seven sons is a common motif in the folk traditions. And the sense that we are being told a tall tale is heightened by the contradictions that can be teased out of the biblical text; the Book of Samuel, for example, describes David as the youngest of eight sons of Jesse . . . All the earliest exploits of David are filled with the sparkle and glow of a fairy tale. (Kirsch, 46-47)
The story of David is presented through creative lens. “Through narrative detail and the invention of dialogue” (alter, 42), the biblical writer gives the events he reports as fictional time and place in order to bring about this “sparkle” Kirsch speaks of. (Alter, 42) This results in the individuation of characters and intensified relationships. Now the common day reader is forced to ask ‘Should David’s legend be shelved in the fiction sections of our libraries?’ No, David’s story is very much true even in light of the imaginative product of the individual writer. The writer adds drama to a typical story to spark intrigue in an audience, much like today’s movies that are labeled with the phrase “based on a true story.” (Alter 41-42)
The Legend of David
In 1 Samuel 24, readers are introduced to the implications of a great action; David is considered a threat to Saul, is pursued by Saul, and then Saul’s men try to do away with the problem. All of this is of course told from the perspective of David, so we are not given the full historical account. Regardless, Saul sets out with three thousand men to kill David, and then the story turns to an intimate detail in the story of David. During the pursuit of David, King Saul has to relieve himself and makes his way up to the very cave David and some of his men had been resting. The, Saul, from whom the Spirit had departed, is seen at his most vulnerable. David is pressured by his companions to end Saul’s hunt while he had the chance. David almost goes through with the act, but, instead, leaves his “calling card” by cutting off the end of Saul’s cloak. Surely David’s actions are considered by many to be noble. As readers living behind the scenes, David is the rightful king from Yahweh being pursued by a spiritless Saul. Finally, when the opportunity almost seems providential, David chose life over death for his vulnerable victim; a merciful deed. This is then followed by a heroic conclusion of David standing at the mouth of the cave as he triumphantly shows the symbol of Saul’s kingship, and, ultimately, life gripped in his palm. This is truly the image of a hero; so many will cling to the rise of David as a time of triumph and heroism. However, if a more full method of study is made over this account, social criticism included, then darker motives for David’s actions are revealed.
Consider for a moment what it would have meant if David would have gone with his gut to kill Saul in that cave. Obviously, this was his original intent as he crept from the shadows of his hiding place to a spot within arms length of the king of Israel. However, he stops in his action and has a change of heart, but why? Perhaps his thoughts were genuine and the life of Saul would not settle well on his conscious. This is the merciful character many see when reading this account. However, imagine if David would have killed Saul in that moment, in the seclusion of that cave. Saul’s men would have seen Saul go into that cave but David come out, and with no context, the automatic assumption would have been that David had committed an act of treason. This surely is not something an upcoming king would have wanted written on his resume. Perhaps this action taken by David is not an act of mercy, but rather a ploy for his upcoming kingship. Taking that into account, David’s immediate actions after this incident make much more sense. He stands at the mouth of the cave, where Israel's king had just done his business, and holds a piece of Saul’s cloak in his hand, flaunting the king’s vulnerability in front of Saul’s three thousand soldiers. Not only would this have been a humiliating encounter for Saul but this also served as a redeeming quality for David. By design, this image of David would stick in the hearts and minds of the Israelites as the ruthless, yet merciful future king David.
The portrayal of David, and the legend that he left behind, is peppered with charming episodes as the one just examined. These episodes, sprinkled with bits of truth and dashes of hyperbole, result in a delicious rendering of David and that legend. This is a man that the people can look up to, lay their trust in, and who would eventually deliver them into a land of peace and sustainability. “As often happens with great men, popular imagination supplied charming legends,” observes Bible commentator Robert H. Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer believes the portrayal of David should be considered more as “an illusion of a mirage.” ( Introduction to the Old Testament. New Yorker: Harper & Brothers, 1941). An individual sees the hero he or she wants to see during a time of upheaval, but the reality of the situation is inevitable and the truth will soon be revealed. In quick comparison, the people of Gotham saw the hero Batman wanted them to see. Perhaps invincibility is what they needed, and perhaps this is what Israel needed as David rose to succession. Regardless, a mirage only lasts periodically, and eventually the truth will become made known.
David is the chosen hero of an irresponsible nation
The people of Israel saw that the other nations had kings, demanding God give Israel a king as well. “God gave the people the king they demanded- but his name was not David.” (Kirsch, 29) The first depiction of Saul that the reader gets in the Book of Samuel is discouraging; Saul is illustrated as hopelessly wondering a countryside in an effort to find some asses (but the reader has already found the ass) until his resources run out. Shortly after, Saul is anointed as king. (Kirsch, 29-30) Saul was a representation of everything that Israel wanted from God, a tall, handsome, standard king; and God supplied just that. “God may have agreed to give the Israelites the king they demanded, but Saul turned out to be the wrong one.” (Kirsch, 31) As we know, David was the chosen king of Israel, the “seventh” son of Jesse. Israel was corrupt, wanting to be like other nations and cast their own vision for what Israel should be. Saul would have supplied exactly what they wanted, but this is not what Israel needed. Israel needed David, the hero hidden in the dark cave like a bat. David was chosen to drag Israel to God and provide hope through the pain.
David as a Symbol
In the story of Israel, David serves as more than just a militaristic hero. Though David did serve as a vital role in delivering Israel from enemy’s hands, David was a symbol of hope for Israel, pointing towards a future shaped by God. The symbol of David aims to “counter not only the oppression of an alien state and the hopeless of exilic powerlessness but also the loss of the identity among the Diaspora.” (Brueggerman, 89-90) Counter to all the temptations of life to diminish, the hopefulness found in the symbol of David guards dignity, consolidates community, and bestows hope where despair seems to linger. The symbol of David unifies Israel and guards their identity. (Brueggerman, 90) However, though David played a major role in shaping the future of Israel, Israel had an even bigger influence on shaping the significance of David.
We are no longer interested in the historical David, as Walter Brueggemann suggests, for that David is no longer available for us to recreate. What is important now is that “David is the engine for Israel’s imagination and for Israel’s public history.” (Bruegemann, 14). This David is no doubt a literary, imaginative construction, made by many hands. The David seen is the David that has been created by the narrator of the story, while the David hidden is the king who possessed every flaw and failure of which a mortal is capable of possessing, yet is a “biblical figure [that] suddenly looms larger than life.” (Kirsch, 46). In the same way, the Batman is a creation of Bruce Wayne, and no signs of weakness can be seen by those solely reading the external characteristics. He stands as the deliverer of Gotham, but is solely motivated by vengeance for his family's murder. The David seen by the public and the Batman seen by the public were created in order to portray power and invincibility, but under that facade of invincibility is a hint of normality. At the center of these taut, dramatic narratives stands two heros of flesh and blood, men as vibrant today as they were when they were first created.
Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1981.
Brueggemann, Walter. David's Truth in Israel's Imagination & Memory. 3. Print. ed. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Pr., 1988.
Greenberger, Robert. The Essential Batman Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Del Rey/DC/Ballantine Books, 2008.
Kirsch, Jonathan. King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.
Swindoll, Charles R. David: A Man of Passion & Destiny : Profiles in Character. Dallas: Word Pub., 1997.