Stories shape how people interact with the world and understand their place within it. We tell stories to provide a sense of order to the world and sometimes we tell stories to name the difficulties and nuances of the world around us. Stanley Hauerwas, a Christian ethicist, posits that societies tell stories to help equip people for the life-long adventure of living the good life. Stories help maintain the courage necessary for us to keep “faithful to the struggle, since by its very nature adventures means that the future is always in doubt. And just to the extent that the future is in doubt, hope is required, as there can be no adventure if we despair our goal. Such hope… involves the simple willingness to take the next step.”
Batman #53 is a story that is explicitly about the struggle on how one should best take that next step. This issue is the conclusion to a three-part story called “Cold Days.” In this story, Bruce Wayne is doing jury duty for a case involving Mr. Freeze that he, as Batman, helped solve. Or, so it appears. The reader quickly learns that Bruce is arguing for Mr. Freeze’s innocence with the jury. Bruce thinks his conclusions he made as Batman were based on flawed evidence and had himself put on the jury so that he could try to correct his mistake. As the story reaches its conclusion, the nature of the conversation shifts away from the evidence and toward the nature of justice and hope. The final issue builds upon Job to contrast God’s justice with Batman’s justice, and the inherent fallibility of Batman as a symbol. Bruce Wayne ends up reflecting on the story of Job to help articulate why a not guilty verdict would be the best way for the jurors to move forward.
The biblical story that Bruce reflects on, the story of Job, speaks to the difficult nature of understanding theodicy, or God’s justice. It opens with a description of a man who is “blameless and upright” (Job 1:1, New American Bible Revised Edition) in every sense of the word. Job is a just man who eagerly observes the necessary cultic practices of his faith. He’s blessed with a large family, much wealth, and good health. Job’s piety is so great that Yahweh, or God, takes note of him. One day Yahweh and Satan converse when the conversation turns to Job. God boasts on Job’s behalf, saying “Have you noticed my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him” (1:8). Satan isn’t convinced that Job is so great. In fact, he believes that Job is only faithful because he is prosperous. Satan, as the tempter and tester, proposes that Job’s faith be tried by stripping him of all blessings; God agrees to this. Job’s possessions, family, and even his health are all taken away from him. Job sits by a fire, in mourning and contemplation, when his friends come to offer comfort, which quickly turns into heated debate. Job is admonished and pushed to admit that he sinned, for if he had not sinned he would not face such hardship. But Job is adamant, he has done no wrong! Eventually Job meets God, face-to-face, to engage in a dialogue. Yahweh confirms that Job’s suffering is not the result of wrong-doing. Job is ultimately vindicated and his blessings returned: he’s given a larger family, even more wealth, and is blessed with a long life.
Tom King’s use of Job in Batman #53 initially seems like a way to flesh the character of Bruce Wayne out. In the story Bruce discusses his loss of faith when his parents died and how he found a god in Batman; the irony, the reader knows, is this is not merely idolatry, but self-deification. King effectively reframes the story to be about idolatry and justice. After all, Batman is not God or even a god (as Bruce reminds the jury). Batman is a man who can make mistakes, thus his justice and his pronouncements of guilt can be wrong. The nature of Batman’s justice is put on trial. In doing so, the comparison between God’s justice in Job and Batman’s justice is made. We cannot assume the justice of our idols; Batman only seems just because the alternative is so cruel – maniacs and “demons” terrorize Gotham on a regular basis – and the citizens have resigned themselves to accept that “his will is our law.”
In presenting a new spin on the classic story of Job, Tom King also recreates a central nuance present in Job. A theme in Job’s speeches, and later in Yahweh’s speech in the story, is that Job is unfit to question the ways of the Creator. Early in the story, Job notes that people “Accept good things from God; should we not accept evil” (2:10). Even when Job does lament his situation, he says that even if one were to “contend” with God, they “could not answer him once in a thousand times,” even if they were “right” (9:3, 15). When God does arrive to take part in the debate, Job refuses to engage in an argument with God, while God’s own arguments mirrors Job’s earlier arguments: can the created understand the ways of the Creator? The closing dialogue with Job and God suggests that “God’s goodness lies beyond justice. This is why the categories of guilt and punishment, true and terrible though they are, can only view human suffering as a consequence of sin, not as an occasion of grace.”
Likewise, Bruce Wayne states he “sought transcendence” in Batman and “thought he was God.” He implies that because so many people have been saved from the grave by Batman’s actions, they view him as a god: who are we to question the world’s greatest detective? This is compared to God’s words in Job. Tom King, like Job’s author, then reframes the question of justice. Batman fails as a god because “he does not provide solace from pain” and “cannot give you hope for the eternal” or “comfort you for the love you lost;” bluntly stated, “God blesses your soul with grace. Batman punches people in the face.”
An undercurrent to the story relates to what type of society is Gotham with Batman as its idol. Bruce, with his own lack of faith, preaches on the meaning of Job to a Christian juror and suggests that everyone in that room has come to see Batman as a god. But questioning the nature of justice is enough to prove that Batman cannot be the basis for the story which allows people to have genuine hope in their own lives. Bruce pushes the other jurors to engage in an argument about which tradition will shape their lives. Hauerwas writes that societies are engaged in “extended argument[s]” involving “living traditions” and “rival interpretations. Good societies enable the argument to continue so that the possibilities and limit of the tradition can be exposed.” In this issue, Bruce Wayne does exactly that. He argues that Batman simply cannot stand up to rival interpretations of reality: once you start asking the tough questions, Batman is revealed to be a mere idol.
Hauerwas notes that “[a]bsorption
into most societies is training in self-deception as we conspire with one
another to keep death at bay…. Good and just societies require a narrative,
therefore, which helps them know the truth about existence and fight the
constant temptation to self-deception.” King’s
Batman #53 highlights that the common superhero narrative can become a form of
self-deception. The story does not just deal with Bruce Wayne’s self-deception,
but the self-deception of the larger world. At the conclusion of the issue, Bruce
eventually wins the argument and convinces the jury to acquit Mr. Freeze and
admit that their false god can err. As the jury leaves the room, they leave
with an apparent new-found sense of purpose that they had lacked earlier on the
narrative when they assumed their role was to merely rubber stamp the judgements
of the Dark Knight; there’s even a sense of joy in the moment as Bruce and his
Christian interlocutor appear to warmly converse on their way out. Yet, the
reader knows that Bruce/Batman is still engaged in this self-deception, even if
he knows that his judgement is fallible. He still lacks a narrative to give him
direction when confronted with the larger issues in life.
. Stanley Hauerwas, “A Story-Formed Community: Reflections on Watership Down,” from A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, reprinted 2008, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1981), 13,
. Tom King, Lee Weeks, Elizabeth Breitweiser, Cold Days, Pt. 3 of 3, Batman #53, (Burbank, CA: DC Comics, October, 2018).
. Tom King, Lee Weeks, Elizabeth Breitweiser, Batman #53.
. Stanley Hauerwas, “A Story-Formed Community,” 14.
. Ibid., 18.