In nearly every iteration of Superman, the creators find a way to offset Kal-El’s Space Orphan status by throwing him a bone in the form of perpetual Space Ghost Dad. Sure, young Mr. Kent, you ARE stranded on a planet, the last of your kind, but it’s all good. Your dad left his expository raw data essence in crystal form. Just insert that shit into a rock or a snowy bank and BLAMO, you’re hip deep in a headquarters that spews posthumous aphorisms from your doomed home planet.
“You are not one of them, but you will inspire them.”
“Your power comes from within.”
“I will literally tell you anything you need to know to beat aliens and robots, if the story calls for it.”
“You are not alone. Space Ghost Dad is here with you.”
Bruce Wayne, though. Poor guy’s parentals get gat-got outside the least lit multiplex in all of Gotham, and the best message he gets from beyond the grave is a flying rodent crashing through the study while he’s bleeding out from the world’s worst foray into recreational vigilantism. Seriously, that is fucked. How many times have you seen a Superman story where the going gets tough, and Big Blue pops off to Deus Ex Ice Cave for a little fatherly plot contrivance? Jor-El left Superman some baller genetics and a 10TB hard drive of useful knowledge, but all the good doctor Thomas Wayne left his seed was money, and we all know money can’t buy love. It, can, however, buy you one really toyetic and disturbing hobby.
Eight years old is a very peculiar time to lose your folks. Obviously, there isn’t an ideal time, but at that age, Bruce was just a kid. When you think that Batman, now, must be in his thirties, you have a man avenging the death of two people he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Those formative memories must seem like amorphous clouds to him, portentous of a rainy day, or the lingering sting from an old injury. In Greg Rucka’s Batman: Death and the Maidens, there is a painful moment when Bruce admits that some nights, he has trouble picturing his mother’s face. The shame Klaus Janson drew on his face outlines the tragedy of such a statement.
Thomas Wayne was a doctor and a philanthropist and a good man. We know that much. Grant Morrison may have tried to steer our thoughts in a different direction with all of that Simon Hurt stuff, but if Good, Earth-2 Jeph Loeb, Batman Begins and the first few narrative captions of every Scott Snyder bat issue has taught me anything, it is that Bruce Wayne was raised by a good man. Thomas is often characterized as a humble, well-intentioned surgeon whose wealth was almost incidental. As far as Rich Comic Dads go, Thomas Wayne is the Warren Buffet to Howard Stark’s Donald Trump. We’re told that he was the kind of man who would help anyone, because he could, and that he and his wife’s deaths broke the city of Gotham, two decent and seemingly untouchable people felled by metal pellets spewed from a gun.
Do you ever think about how when Jor-El makes the jump to other media, a big name actor dripping with gravitas steps up to the plate? Marlon Brando, Russell Crowe, even Terrence Stamp on Smallville. To be the father of Superman holds this palpable heft. In Batman Begins, relative unknown Linus Roche makes the most use of his limited screen time, breathing a stern yet endearing sense of love and righteousness into Thomas Wayne. Even though these moments are just coloring in the broad origin beats we’ve seen time and again in support of the film’s Johnsian Literalist depiction of fear as a theme, Thomas Wayne taking his son out of a scary performance only to get gunned down packs a punch. The thing is, Thomas Wayne is a flashback. He’s a ghost in more ways than one. The most he is fleshed out in recent comic history is the alternate universe of Flashpoint, where Thomas Wayne is a mourning, grislier Batman in a world where it was Bruce who died instead of himself.
Thomas Wayne serves a different purpose. We would never need for Bruce to discover a meticulous diary Thomas kept of mental patients he encountered at the hospital who happened to later become super villains. Jor-El can be a digital specter because he’s the last tether connecting Superman to his destroyed home world, and no matter how goofy it gets in certain interpretations, it works. Not knowing his father beyond some skewed childhood memories is part of the tragedy of Batman. Batman’s dad needs to be a firm, mustachioed manifestation of the good of man and traditional patriarchal masculinity, because if his dad was some flawed jerk who was complicit in his own death, or just another twisted cog in the Rube Goldberg Machine of Perpetual Tragedy that is Gotham City, you don’t get Batman. Avenging his dead parents and waging an impossible war on crime is just part of it. Trying to live up to his father’s legacy completes the picture.
In Thomas Wayne, Gotham had it’s own kind of protector. He was a pillar in the community. When Batman isn’t punching the crap out of crackheads and flamboyant schizophrenics, Bruce Wayne is trying to live up to his father’s name, using his considerable wealth to build up a city that won’t breed anymore Joe Chills. That’s why we don’t need stories where Thomas is a mayoral candidate who ran afoul of graft or someone with a secret history that needs to be solved. Thomas Wayne was a good man who did what he could for those around him, and was the victim of a senseless, random crime. He tried to help create a better Gotham, but didn’t push far enough.
Luckily for her citizens, Gotham City really made orphan lemonade out of that street killing. She got a son driven to go further than his father ever had to, to ensure a world where eight year old boys don’t have to face what he’s faced.
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