This is a story that we think we know. A young boy. Parents murdered in a darkened alley. A crazed killer. But there's something different, in this telling. Something off. Something... strange.
The medical term for the kind of all-encompassing identification with a particular fictional character that some fans experience is referred to as ‘experience-taking’. It’s (usually) not a negative thing. In layperson’s terms, it happens when the reader (and it is almost always a reader; it’s much rarer for a film to stimulate this kind of response) feels a connection with a character to such a point that they ‘experience’ aspects of their lives in a very real, very visceral way. This is usually due to the fact that the character (consciously or otherwise) embodies some trait or experience that the reader either shares or wishes that they shared and it is usually a positive psychological phenomenon because it can influence the reader’s real-world behavior in a measurable, lasting way. For example, if a straight man reads a story about a man of a similar age (who happens to be gay) and he identifies with that character, he will be measurably more accepting of homosexuality after he finishes the story.
It doesn’t work if the writing is bad. If the first thing the writer says is, ‘Bob is a gay man.’ then the reader will be less likely to form this bond, regardless of their sexual alignment.
But what (I can hear you asking) does this have to do with Batman? Well, it’s simple. Beyond the fact that a great many people (strongly) identify with the character, it is a fact that every positive trait has its negative counterpoint. Every light has its shadow. Every Batman has its psychotic killer-clown. You get the picture. The negative correlation of ‘experience taking’ is a little thing called ‘acquisitive projective identification’. This is when a person (usually suffering from narcissism) takes on traits from another person’s story, claiming them for their own. This often ends badly. I don’t know if you remember way back in issue #38 of King’s run, but that story featured a rich young boy named Matthew who was so obsessed with the story of Bruce Wayne that he hired a killer to murder his parents. Of course, the real Bruce Wayne initially identified with the boy, before recognizing his illness and turning him over to the police.
We (the readers) entered this earlier story from the perspective of The Batman. We felt his identification with the ‘innocent’ orphaned boy and so we felt his shock at the realization of what the child (who was so close to what Bruce might have been) had done. This issue was (appropriately) an inverted reflection of issue #38. We open from the perspective of young ‘Bruce’. It is initially presented as an alternate-reality story (this is what would have happened had Batman been around to save himself) before it becomes apparent that we are really being forced to inhabit the perspective of a very sick (very dangerous) child. One who does things that his idol certainly would not approve of. Even if the idea of ‘revenge’ is firmly ingrained into the Batman myth.
This could be read as a very interesting meta-commentary on the fandom — and that certainly was at least part of King’s intention. By thrusting us into a story which seems so familiar, so welcoming; a well-known song that we can sing along with and then delivering this shock, he’s asking us to develop a modicum of self-awareness. He’s asking us to re-examine exactly what it is that we are fans of. But it’s also yet another unexplored angle a complicated psyche. We know our heroes by their villains. By the evil they attract, and by the way they face those evils down.
What makes this story so compelling is that there are a number of ways for Bruce to respond to this stimulus. Each response will be irrevocable and defining. The Fitzgerald quote King chose was, once again, unspeakably appropriate.
I can’t wait to find out where this story goes.
King starts off this new arc with a level of structural narrative complexity that is perfect for the medium — and thus far unequaled in the form. There's also a surprising amount of well-executed violence.
Batman #61: Secret Identity
Writing - 8.5/108.5/10
Storyline - 8.5/108.5/10
Art - 8/108/10
Color - 8/108/10
Cover Art - 8/108/10
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