Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Mask of the Superhero: Ritual Portrayal in the Comics

In America, outside of the official churches of major religions, there is little obvious ritual. We have few experiences that can be compared to physically enacted, inward directed and mentally changing phenomenon that many cultures around the globe still engage in. Even rituals of religion have lost much relevance, because, as Joseph Campbell writes, “Where the synagogues and churches go wrong is by telling what their symbols ‘mean’. The value of an effective rite is that it leaves everyone to his own thoughts, which dogma and definitions only confuse” (Myths 97). The value of American religious ritual has been degraded because the metaphors of their meaning have been depleted, replaced with absolute values few actually understand. If a ritual evokes nothing, it is difficult to label it a ritual. However, there is another place to look for rituals in America. Analyzing modern myth in our culture, Harold Schechter quotes Mircea Eliade, “’What has become of myths in the modern world?’-and his answer is in part that they are to be found in our amusements, that they ‘survive among our contemporaries in more or less degraded forms’” (3). Myth survives, and thrives, in many forms in popular culture. Schechter analyzes the comic book, maintaining that “Far from being ‘mindless escapism’ or ‘worthless junk,’ popular art is a projection of the collective unconscious-an expression of the deepest, myth-producing level of the human psyche” (9). When readers interact personally with a text as closely as reading a comic, utilizing the built-in structure of gaps between panels to interject their own thoughts into the narrative, it becomes apparent such works function in a manner similar to classic myths. However, can ritual be present there as well? At the very least, ritual may be portrayed in these popular myths, just as ritual has been portrayed in the classic mythological narratives of the world. In these portrayals, what can we learn of how ritual is seen in our society? By analyzing the origin narrative of a famous superhero, the Batman, and focusing on the masking ritual he found so necessary, it will become apparent popular culture portrays both historically ethnocentric, as well as more relevant and open-minded, beliefs about ritual masking events.

Before there was Cultural Relativism, the Western anthropologist was an insulated breed, upholding European-based society as civilization, while at the same time, denigrating the fascinating “primitives” around the world, and their beliefs, as a lesser level of society. Through the twentieth century, this slowly began to change, but theory based on years of academic writing can be painfully slow to such change. Ritual masking theory, as Henry Pernet makes extremely clear, was based on Western assumptions and held to some very narrow views. He repudiates the purely Western interpretation of ritual masking as always being about giving up, escaping or changing one’s own personality to enter a supernatural state (125) as the only possible interpretations of this cultural phenomenon. Pernet demonstrates it is incorrect to generalize that the wearer of the mask always “becomes the spirit represented by the mask” (162) because “the facts show that the wearer generally remains aware and responsible; he must often submit himself to a long apprenticeship, demonstrate great concentration” (162). He also repudiates the view that “masks are malevolent” (105), because the wearers are usually dedicated and willing participants in the masking rituals (105-106). In the wide range of cultural masking phenomenon, these older, Western ideas have now been opened to a much wider range of analysis. Pernet writes, “As for the relation between the wearer, his mask, the power, the event or the spirit represented, it is found…on a continuum ranging from the simple dramatization of a character or a mythic narrative to a possible ‘actual transformation’ of the wearer, including a number of cases where the ‘supernatural’ power or element is present, completely or in part, in the mask, its accessories or the costume” (134). Pernet deftly proves by examples that every masking ritual has its own details and they do not all conform to the same parameters. The story of the Batman is relevant because it contains so many of the meanings behind ritual masking that Pernet delineates in his survey of the phenomenon. In addition, many of the classic theories of ritual can be applied to aspects of this narrative. Because of the huge volume of material containing this character, most of the following observations will be applied simply to a short, two-page origin story from November 1939 (Kane and Finger).

Before the origin narrative is examined, the most obvious and pervasive aspect of masking in the Batman story is the very one that Pernet proves to be flawed, the early Western view of other cultures’ ritual masks. The main premise of the Batman, and a major factor in the character’s popularity through a seventy year history, is that by putting on the mask, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, a different entity. The man, Wayne, gives up his persona of a wealthy playboy to become the hero, Batman, a night-prowling crime fighter. He escapes his limits as a man to become a superhero. In addition, he completely changes his personality, going from a blasé millionaire to a hard-nosed detective, fighting to end crime. The mask reshaping the man into a supernatural-like entity echoes the early anthropologist’s views on masking. If the man did not become the Batman so completely, it is questionable whether the character would have lasted for seventy years. In all the multiple comics series starring the Batman, only one, a single, stand-alone issue, names Bruce Wayne in the title (Overstreet, 324). The major reason for sitting down with a Batman comic is to be engrossed by the narrative of the superhero, not his normal, true identity. Very clearly, because of the mask, Bruce Wayne becomes someone completely different. The non-stop and seemingly endless versions of the basic Batman crime fighting narratives prove the power of our culture’s need to believe in the myth of such heroes.

However, there is deeper resonance between Batman, masking and ritual theory to be discovered when we closely examine the foundation of the character, his creation myth, or origin, as it usually called in the comics. In a two page narrative (Kane and Finger), the following tale is told: young Bruce Wayne, his father and his mother are walking home from a movie. A robber pulls a gun on them and demands his mother’s necklace (Page 1, Panel 1). The father defends her and moves toward the crook. The robber shoots him dead (P.1, P.2). The mother yells for police, causing the robber to shoot her dead as well (P.1, P.3). Young Bruce has witnessed the entire, brutal slaying and stares, crying, at his dead parents lying on the sidewalk (P.2, P’s. 1-2). Next seen, the boy is kneeling and praying at his bedside, and he swears, “by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals” (P.2, P.3). We are then told he studies to become “a master scientist” (P.2, P.4) and he “trains his body to physical perfection until he is able to perform amazing athletic feats” (P.2, P.5). In the sequence that completes the origin narrative, Wayne tells us “I must have a disguise” (P.2, P6) and “Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night. Black, terrible..a.a..” (P.2, P.7). A bat flies into his room. He says, “A bat! That’s it! It’s an omen. I shall become a Bat!” (P.2, P.8) The Batman is then depicted in full mask and costume with cape, under the caption, “And thus is born this weird figure of the dark..This avenger of evil. ‘The Batman’” (P.2, P.9). This short sequence proves to be very rich in depicting various aspects of ritual masking and ritual theory. This theoretical grounding may partially account for the resonance readers feel with the character and his continued popularity in our culture.

Important attributes of ritual in reality are that they should be physically enacted by a body, inwardly directed to embody “thought or belief”, and consist of mentally changing action “designed to reflect an interpretation of existence and to effect an experience of that interpretation” (Grillo). Are these fundamental qualities depicted in the origin narrative of the Batman as described above? First and most direct, the mask of the Batman is physically and thoughtfully put on by Bruce Wayne to become the Batman. Unfortunately, this action is not specifically drawn. However, this is a good example of the comics structure, wherein putting on the mask is the missing action the reader interjects between Panels 8 and 9. In addition to the mask, Bruce Wayne has clothed himself in an entire costume, including the typical cape and tights of the superhero. Second in regard to physical enacting, the entire ritual of becoming Batman, and really any superhero, is a physical action. The genre itself is equivalent to physicality and action. The Batman as a character is renowned because he does not have superpowers, but simply has trained, physically, to gain the strength he will need for his self-imposed mission. This is shown in Page 2, Panel 5, where we see Bruce Wayne lifting weights. Physical fitness itself may be ritualized, and Batman is a prime example of physical embodiment. Though the Batman story is told in a narrative form, the melding of story with art that is comics often emphasizes performance over narrative, which is similar to the structure of rituals in reality.

The second attribute of ritual, to be inwardly directed to embody belief and thought, is certainly present in the masking ritual of the Batman. Every time Bruce Wayne puts on his Batman mask, he becomes the persona of Batman, which was specifically chosen “to strike terror into” the hearts of the criminals he is dedicating his life to bringing to justice. The Batman’s purpose is to put an end to such brutality as was witnessed by the young Bruce Wayne. The entire costume, including the mask, is chosen to embody the action of striking terror in to the hearts of criminals. As such, it is an outward manifestation of Bruce Wayne’s thoughts in regard to his new mission.

This overlaps with the third attribute of rituals, that of mentally changing the person undergoing the ritual. As shown in the third panel of Page 2, Bruce Wayne swears on the spirits of his murdered parents to war on all criminals. His view of the cosmos is implied to be one of justice versus injustice, a staple of the superhero genre, and easily imagined by the reader of this narrative after seeing the brutality of the crime depicted just before this panel. Wayne’s role in actually working against injustice can only become action by a transformation into a crime fighter. He cannot work for his mission as Bruce Wayne. When he undergoes the ritual masking and puts on his Batman costume, his mindset changes, and the persona of the Batman reflects the experience of having seen his parents gunned down, as well as the embodiment of his internal view of justice. Pernet suggests that, “masks often aim, on the one hand, at expressing a cosmos, a system of the world, and on the other hand, at recalling or dramatizing events, which are in general the founding events of the world, of humanity, of the clan, or of a particular institution” (161). In the case of Batman, his mask, and thus his new persona, expresses both his views on how the world should work, as well as recalling the founding, tragic event of the character.

Ritual theory, as Pernet’s work on ritual masking reflects, often contains many different ideas that can co-exist in one ritual. The general narrative as analyzed above already depicts many fundamental aspects of rituals underlying the Batman origin. The analysis can also be expanded by correlating the narrative with additional specific ritual theories. For Mircea Eliade, one of the goals of ritual is renewal, bringing a previous creation back into existence by performing a ritual activity. He explains, “the experience of sacred space and sacred time reveals a desire to reintegrate a primordial situation – that in which the gods and the mythical ancestors were present, that is, were engaged in creating the world, or in organizing it, or in revealing the foundations of civilization” (91-92). When Bruce Wayne puts on the Batman mask, he is reintegrating a “primordial situation” by remembering the heinous crime against his parents. In this sense, it is his real ancestors, not mythic, that are present in his psyche every time he undergoes the ritual masking. By putting on the mask, he also reveals “the foundations of civilization”, his own moral underpinning of justice which shapes his cosmos and was the reason he developed the Batman persona in the first place. The mask represents the event of the unjust murders, and the events which followed based on the lingering mental effect on the only survivor. It is not the bat image that is important in Wayne’s own psyche, but the memorial and re-enactment of his moral values that were so shaped by the brutal shooting of his parents in the street. In a sense, the act of putting on the mask is what Eliade termed a hierophany, an irruption of the sacred into space and time that allows the experience of the original moment to be remembered and enacted, though in this case, the sacred event is only reenacted in Bruce Wayne’s psyche.

Batman’s mask is not a Halloween mask. Becoming a superhero is not merely a way for Bruce Wayne to play. When he says “Dad’s estate left me wealthy” (Page 2, Panel 6), we can believe if his parents were still alive, Wayne would be enjoying that wealth, not choosing to risk his life by fighting crime. The murder of his parents began what is basically an initiation rite for Bruce Wayne. As delineated by Arnold Van Gennep, initiation is a rite of passage, a change from one state to another. As such, there are rites between each state. These rites “may be subdivided into rites of separation, transition rites, and rites of incorporation” (11). All three subdivisions are portrayed in the Batman origin narrative. Rites of separation take place when an initiate is separated from normal society, the rites marking them as someone whose status is going to change. The brutal murder of Wayne’s parents can be seen in this way, though this is admittedly an extremely literal rite of separation. The young boy is now in a liminal state, neither of society, as defined by the family unit that is now gone, nor is he yet the adult who chooses to become the Batman. In this liminal state, he undergoes transition rites, actions that change him and prepare his ability to re-enter society. These include his vow to make war “on all criminals”, his training as a “master scientist” and the training of “his body to physical perfection” (Page 2, Panels 3-5). These rites change him spiritually, mentally and physically. As a whole, they prepare Bruce Wayne for his eventual transition back into the world. The latter rites are those of incorporation, when the initiate with changed status re-enters the world. In this origin narrative, the incorporation rite takes place when Bruce Wayne decides to become the Batman. The moment he decides to become “a bat!”, as well as that missing scene when he actually pulls on the Batman mask, signify these rites of incorporation. The last panel in the narrative shows the Batman, in the world and ready to live up to his vow to fight crime. The caption above clearly marks this as a rite of incorporation in the form of a rebirth, as it reads, “And thus is born…this avenger of evil. ‘The Batman’” (P.2, P.9). The mask and costume have led to a rebirth, an incorporation of a new persona into the world. Bruce Wayne has finally reentered society in a new state.

If we consider Batman in general, not focusing simply on this origin narrative, it can be argued that he does not actually reenter society, but remains a liminal being. For a liminal initiate undergoing Van Gennep’s rites of passage, there are key points that define the experience they are going through. These include “spatial separation”, a conscious struggle regarding their changing state, the actual experience of the sacred and the promotion of their own understanding of the cosmos, in which the “ritual itself defines and determines what is sacred” (Grillo). If we consider Batman as a liminal being, we can perceive him as being perpetually stuck in the transition rite. He is a masked hero who prefers the darkness of night, which spatially separates him from other humans. In later versions of the Batman story, he is in constant struggle with himself and trying to figure out if Bruce Wayne is the real person or whether Batman has become more real. He experiences the sacred every time he relives his bedside vow by putting on his mask to become Batman. As this year marks the seventieth anniversary of his first appearance, he has been experiencing the sacred for quite a long time. Finally, if the ritual is what determines the sacred, the very fact Wayne continues to put on the mask, participating in the physical ritual that is the work of the Batman, implies the Batman has become more real than Bruce Wayne. For the reader of these comics, this is definitely the situation, as the myth of Batman continues to resonate deep within their imaginations and psyches. For Bruce Wayne, however, the day when he gives up the liminality of Batman by getting rid of the mask, will be the actual day when he undergoes the incorporation rite.

As we begin to question the duality of Batman and where his place in society actually lies, it becomes useful to consider Sigmund Freud’s views on ritual. To do this, it will be necessary to keep analyzing Batman through the wider lens of all his various narratives, not simply the original origin. In more recent Batman stories, starting with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, the Batman myth is examined in a grittier and more realistic style. The liminality of the superhero is directly addressed, and the question arises as to whether the Batman is a hero or a villain. The specific issue is whether someone who dresses up in a bat costume and acts as a vigilante can actually be considered part of society, much less a hero. In these narratives, Batman definitely remains a liminal being, stuck in the transition rite. Freud, equating the obsessive actions of neurotics with ritual actions, calls out their threefold resemblances consisting of “the qualms of conscience brought on by their neglect, in their complete isolation from all other actions…and in the conscientiousness with which they are carried out in every detail” (213). However, Freud does distinguish between the two, calling obsessive actions unconscious while ritual actions are usually consciously performed, even if the actor does not know why he or she is doing the action. In the Batman narrative, Freud might focus on the vicious murder of his parents that Bruce Wayne witnessed. The complexes developed from this experience, Freud might argue, have turned Wayne into an obsessive neurotic. He ritually becomes the Batman, putting on the mask, to satisfy his neurotic needs as above: he might feel guilty if he did not, he has put his wealth and normal society aside and he has dedicated his life to avenging an act he witnessed as a boy. The Batman personality is a compensation for his inability to keep his parents alive. In today’s Batman stories, as well as many other superhero narratives, this type of psychological examination of the protagonists is rampant. Many of the superheroes now have at least some elements of an anti-hero.

The origin of the Batman, as demonstrated by the masking rite which actually creates the character, has elements of four of the six categories of ritual devised by Catherine Bell (Grillo). These include the rite of passage, the commemorative rite, the rite of affliction (both in Batman’s attempt to destroy criminal behavior as well as his own attempt to heal his internal wounds) and the political ritual, as his attempt to rid the world of crime clearly expresses his world view, and possibly his desire to set himself as a vigilante, a judge of society. Clearly, the Batman origin narrative, through a mixture of words and pictures, expresses the content of ritual. The Batman character, through seventy years of narrative, has developed into a mythical being for our society. Granted, the usual genre story in the superhero comic is less mythology than violent wish fulfillment. However, the origins of these characters often contain embedded mythological resonance which has been built upon year after year, between the battles and the cliffhangers. As referred to above, the actual origin narrative of the Batman has been retold countless times, changing the myth of the character for the new generation discovering the comics. In seventy years, there have now been five generations, worldwide, that have known the origins of the Batman.

The longevity of the character can be ascribed to two general ideas. First, the comics art form is one in which artists and a writer create a story that a singular reader experiences. This solitary act is extremely conducive to allowing readers to truly engage with the narrative, allowing mythical elements in the text to interact with their own thoughts. Just as in classical myths, this interaction often creates new ideas in a person’s psyche. As already pointed out, the superhero narratives have matured over the years. The comic art form has as well. The artist is very often the writer now, creating singular works in all genres, adult narratives that feature much more than superheroes. Second, the mythic elements in the superhero narratives, including the demonstrated elements of ritual action in the Batman character’s origin, resonate with the reader. Ritual action is deeply embedded in the human, as demonstrated by worldwide commonality. The reader recognizes, at some level, the human universals portrayed by Batman’s ritualistic behavior. Recognition and resonance lead to relevance. The relevance of rituals, the very reason they are performed, is because they work (Grillo). If they do not work, they do not get performed. The ritual mask allows Batman to succeed in avenging his parents’ death because it allows him to fight crime effectively. This is a fictional presentation of ritual, but even in the end, it still meets the requirements of why ritual is performed. Henry Pernet sums up the uses of the ritual mask in a way that could almost sum up ritual: “the mask could be an identity, emblem, and object of prestige, an affirmation of social status or hierarchy, that it could express and validate political, economic and social realities” (164). The Batman’s mask is all of these things.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. New York: Penguin Compass, 1972.

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1959.

Freud, Sigmund. “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices”. Readings in Ritual Studies. Ed. Ronald L. Grimes. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Grillo, Laura. “Class Lecture Notes – Ritual.” Pacifica Graduate Institute. Carpinteria, CA. 7 Jan. 2009.

Kane, Bob (a), and Finger, Bill (w).”The Batman and How He Came To Be” [abridged-Detective Comics #33, November, 1939]. Ed. Daniels, Les. Batman: The Complete History. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999: 34-35.

Overstreet, Robert M. The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, 30th Edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.

Pernet, Henry. Ritual Masks: Deception and Revelations. Trans. Laura Grillo. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1992.

Schechter, Harold. The New Gods: Psyche and Symbol in Popular Art. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1980.

Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

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