Another anti-Batman post (or: why I like graphic violence in my superhero comics)

I realize my last anti-Batman post was less than a month ago (see also: the original “Batman sucks” post), but this interview with Sam Harris has reminded me of another huge problem I have with Batman. First, from the interview:

Would you rather be attacked by one person with a knife, or several unarmed individuals equally intent on killing you?

Both situations are invitations to a track meet: You want to run. One of my teachers, Mark Mikita, specializes in knife fighting, mostly derived from the Filipino martial arts, and one of his teachers told him: “If you train with me for ten years, and someone pulls a knife on you, and you just turn and run, then your training has been successful.” The problems of a knife and multiple attackers are similar, in that they rarely end well for a person who is alone and unarmed.

Even if you know how to defend yourself against one person, fighting several people is a hugely different situation. You could be a Golden Gloves champion, but while you confront your first attacker, you’ll have one or more people taking your flank. Underestimating the gravity of this problem is one of the more dangerous illusions that martial artists acquire. It is true that uncommitted or unsophisticated attackers might approach you serially, and if you have good skills, you might prevail over one at a time. But if you’re swarmed by several people at once, it becomes a problem for which no martial art has a solution. Only having a weapon makes you likely to prevail.

Similarly, a knife attack is always a disaster for an unarmed person. Somebody who gets out of 10 years in a maximum-security prison has basically gone to graduate school for shanking people. A person who is seriously intent upon killing you with a knife is not going to attack in the way you’ve learned to expect from martial-arts class. Most martial artists have done knife-defense drills where their partners attack in a very stereotyped way–lunging forward with a single thrust and leaving their arm out there so that you can perform the technique. This is just a pantomime of combat, and it is dangerously misleading.

The reality of a knife attack is that even if you stop 50% of the thrusts and slashes, you will be taking damage with every other move. And getting cut with a knife of any size is physiologically horrible in a way that few people realize. It is arguably worse than getting shot. A bullet is a tiny ball of metal that may or may not hit something vital. Unless you’re shooting someone in the brainstem or heart, you’re basically waiting for blood loss to incapacitate him. A knife–especially in the hands of someone who knows how to use it–cuts through everything it touches, and it’s not going to malfunction or run out of bullets. It is also much harder to wrestle a blade out of a person’s hand, because you can grab a gun without getting your fingers cut off.

Batman, of course, is routinely portrayed doing these things that the best martial artists in the world cannot do consistently. Which isn’t to say that no unarmed person has ever successfully wrestled a knife away from someone, just that no sane person, even one who’s gone through the relevant part of special forces training, will put themselves in that situation consistently.

It’s worth emphasizing how incredibly problematic the “unarmed” part of the equation is for Batman (or at least the “doesn’t use bladed weapons or firearms on humans” part, once you take into account batarangs and smoke bombs). Because, you see, Batman doesn’t kill, and only in “darker” interpretations does he even break bones. This is not how violence works in real life.

I’ve done a little martial arts. I am not a master by any means. One of the many reasons I am not a master–or even qualify as “pretty good”–is that I will tap out (give up the fight) just because something is extremely painful. Even in cases where I am told the technique is unlikely to do any real damage. I am also told that experienced martial artists will keep fighting in those situations, if they know they’re not actually going to be injured.

This is why relying on inflicting pain for self-defense is not a good idea. It might work, but it might turn out your attacker is capable of fighting through pain. You want to fight to inflict actual injury. Breaking bones is good. What’s that, you say? Or you could just try to knock them out? That’s what Batman typically does, in his less “dark” interpretations.

If you don’t immediately see what’s wrong with that… I mean, you’ve heard of boxers getting punch drunk, right? But actually, there’s more to it than that, go take a look at the Wikipedia article on concussions. Understand that getting knocked unconscious basically always involves a traumatic brain injury and is really something you should get medical attention for, even if it seems “minor.” That’s what Batman is doing when he “KO”s random henchmen, if you interpret the scenes realistically.

Violence in the real world generally involves injuring people or at least getting them to back down for fear of being injured (forcibly restraining someone can be an exception, but even then someone may get injured). Fighting unarmed does not change the fact that violence involves hurting people, it just makes you less effective at doing so.

To be perfectly clear, this is a bad thing about violence. But generally I prefer my fiction to not sugar-coat the bad stuff in life. Granted, it’s hard for non-R-rated fiction that portrays violence to be totally realistic about this, but the Batman mythos has a tendency to glory in ignoring the realities of violence.

If you’re going to have a quasi-pacifist superhero, give him a fantasy-tech stun weapon or something so it’s clear you’re not even pretending to go for realism. If you’re going to show characters doing things to people that would realistically cause serious injury, show that.

I’d rather read something like the comic Invincible, where super-strength that can punch through walls has the effects you’d expect when applied to people. Accompanied by appropriate inner conflict about how far the hero is willing to go to protect people from the villains.

(And before anyone brings up Spider-Man canonically pulling his punches, what I’ve said about stopping an attacker often requiring broken bones or a concussion applies to him to.)

(Closing aside: when I first started reading Invincible, I didn’t get very far because it seemed like a generic superhero comic at first. A well-done generic superhero comic, in the vein of Astro City, but still generic. But that’s not what Invincible is. I won’t give any spoilers, but I strongly recommend picking it up and reading through the first two or three volumes of the trade paperback, or most of the first volume of the hardcover, before making a decision on it.)

  • Bob Jase

    1. Who says Batman is sane – seriously, dressing like a bat and fighting crime?

    2. He’s the goddamned Batman.

    3. Take a look at the early stories from the ’30′s and early ’40′s – Batman routinely killed bad guys.

    4. Robin sucks and that’s what made Batman go soft.

    • Chris Hallquist

      In (3), you must mean very early 40s, as Robin was added in April 1940. And regardless of what Batman was like in the early years, the “no kill” policy has been irrevocably made part of his character.

    • http://www.smidoz.wordpress.com smidoz

      Of course he isn’t sane, that’s why I enjoyed Watchmen, at least they were all portrayed as nut cases.

      • hf

        I was thinking of that too. During the jailbreak, we see the ‘good’ heroes casually knock two men unconscious – while talking about how awful violence is. On first reading I missed the fact that the men are prisoners, not guards who would want to stop our ‘heroes’ jailbreak, and appear to be minding their own business.

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

    I have almost no martial arts training, just like 1 or 2 self-defense classes. The first thing they emphasized to us, though, was that you want to run away. The second thing was that if you have to put someone down, you have to be willing to inflict real damage. Stomp on insteps, break knees, keys in eyes, anything to do enough damage to enable you to run away. If you’re not willing to inflict that damage, then don’t even try to fight. Just run.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=47910251 Scott Broussard

    That’s why there’s All-Star Batman and Robin, Boy Wonder.

  • disqus_etzgo4i0Ya

    The perfectly calibrated blow to the head that knocks a character out without causing any long-term damage is EVERYWHERE, even in things that pretend to be more or less realistic. It’s so useful, because it lets good guys win without becoming bad guys. Too bad that doesn’t make it real. It may be the most common bit of complete BS in fiction (or at least in the genres I read/watch most).


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X