They say you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few legs. Or something. Especially if you’re a superhero and your omelet is some fantastic sense of justice. Often the hero’s journey, particularly those of the spandex-costumed variety, begins with trauma and progresses as the hero learns to channel powers and emotions into saving the world and rooting out evil-doers. My superhero story opens in much the same manner.
My whole life, I’ve dreamed (sometimes literally on lucky nights) of being Batman, the guardian of Gotham, keeping the streets clean not with otherworldly abilities but with his strength, intelligence, and unwavering dedication to upholding the good. The first time that I remember assuming the mantle of the Bat was in my childhood backyard, after having five long Gotham winters under my utility belt.
That fateful afternoon I became Batman, the Dark Knight, the righter of wrongs, the Caped Crusader and dealer of justice (in this case, the cape was a towel of the darkest blue I could find, complimented by black underwear worn over my batsuit pajamas and a plastic Batman mask that drooped over my mouth and nearly covered my entire face). Meanwhile, elsewhere in the backyard, unbeknownst to him, my younger brother was the nefarious Penguin, spherical and waddling.
Pictured L to R: Artist’s rendering of my brother circa 1992; photograph of me atop the pumphouse circa 1992.
My five-year-old vigilante self saw evil afoot as the two-year-old sauntered into my vicinity. Batman could only abide evil underfoot. So I climbed onto the hot-water pumphouse, a structure maybe four feet off the ground, shedding the child alias and transforming into the Caped Crusader. As the Penguin came maniacally giggling closer, Batman swung into action. Biff! Pow! KaBlowie!
I leapt heroically from the roof of the pumphouse, landing squarely atop the toddling rogue. Justice was served, and a bone in his leg snapped accordingly. (And yet, I didn’t remember ever hearing of the real Batman being spanked for his dealings with ne’er-do-wells). The Penguin was rushed to the hospital, the Batman returned to the shadows, and I turned the other cheek toward the paddle.
I was horrified (and admittedly a little impressed) by my five-year-old brute strength and decided that from then on, I’d fight for justice. Like Batman, I’d make a stand. Sitting hurt too much just then anyway.
My brother crawled around with a cast for the next few months, living proof that no one challenges the Batman, knowledgably or not, with impunity. To add insult to actual injury, I drew a bat insignia on his cast.
This was perhaps not the most glorious of origin stories, but neither was Bruce Wayne’s, I suppose, what with the whole murdered parents thing. Yet I soon learned to harness my powers for good, whether or not I was dressed for the part.
When my other kid brother stubbed a toe outside and was more horrified by the sight of his own blood than by any actual pain, Batman was on the scene once more, piloting a Batman bigwheel to the front door of Goode manor and rushing to retrieve a Batman-themed Band-Aid to quell the wailing, blue towel swishing valiantly in his wake.
Batman appeared again when an older neighbor kid shoved a younger one to the ground. Drawing on his extensive ninja training, the Dark Knight spotted the nearest weapon, a stick lying in a swampy ditch, and flung the impromptu projectile at the head of the thug. A resounding comic book “Splat!” could be heard as the muddy wood connected with flesh, followed by the rather un-comic book crying of the bully. With the sludge and tears covering half of his face, Batman deemed him Two Face and admonished him against a further life of crime. Then, like any good ninja, the Batman vanished before the authorities, in the form of Commissioner Bully-Kid’s-Mom, arrived to punish the just do-gooder, resuming his adolescent alias until duty turned on the bat signal again.
In middle school, the Dark Knight was summoned forth once more. Behind the playground of the church school I attended, a poor, unsuspecting fifth-grader Gothamite and classmate of mine was belittled for his supposed effeminacy by two evil sixth graders. One of the knaves, a sinewy prankster with an affinity for harassment, was fooling around with three juggling sticks. He was accompanied by his ever-present henchman, an ox of an oaf without too much going on upstairs who was supposed to be in seventh grade but had been held back in kindergarten for not learning shapes or colors or whatever other knowledge five-year-olds are responsible for. In my eyes, the juggling clown was the Joker, his muscle Bane. This was a job for Batman.
Pictured: The products of an over-active imagination.
The timid fifth grader asked to try out the juggling sticks, but was denied, because apparently “sissies” couldn’t play with them. Sissies, he was informed with a jeer, were better suited for what this shy civilian kid could usually be found doing in the field while other boys were tossing footballs and tackling – making necklaces out of clover flowers. Sensing injustice, I stepped in and told the older villains to leave the kid alone and knock off the name-calling. The Joker asked me who I thought I was. My eyes narrowed, and I again transformed.
“I am vengeance! I am the night! I…am…Batman!” came the reply along with a shove. Then Batman got ready to kick some ass.
Unfortunately, the criminals had the upper hand. Bane grabbed a juggling stick and proceeded to strike the Batman thrice as the Joker looked on and cackled. Biff! Pow! KaBlowie! Like his comic-book counterpart who infamously breaks the Bat’s back, Bane broke skin and left two dark blue welts on the hero’s thighs and one on his right knee. The innocent bystander escaped unscathed, and, due to the corrupt institutions of Gotham politics (both the Joker’s and Bane’s mothers were well-known substitute teachers and church members), the criminals also got off unpunished. Batman had, after all, instigated the confrontation by pushing the evil-doers.
The wounds healed gradually, but I quickly realized then that I couldn’t save everyone. I wasn’t equipped with the resources of a billionaire vigilante, and Gotham’s bad guys were numerous and dangerous. But this only strengthened my resolve and commitment to crime fighting in my own neck of the city.
After that day, I decided that physical skirmishes might not be the best way to combat evil and started spending more time in Gotham’s libraries than on her streets. Not that I was involved in no more scuffles from then on or that they didn’t end invariably better than the Joker-Bane incident, but I began to pursue the more mental aspects of battling crime – characteristics that make Batman stand apart from other spandex-clad superheroes – participating in debates in high school and turning to lyricism and writing in college and beyond.
As many more Gotham winters have come and gone, life and processing life have become more and more complex for the Caped Crusader. Villains don’t always fall so neatly into comic book caricature categories. The correct course of action is seldom black and white. Sometimes it’s a dark blue, the color of a cape-towel or a blooming bruise. Holy convenient metaphor, Batman!
Though sometimes rogues couldn’t be any more cartoonishly, moustache-twirlingly dastardly.
But where evil lurks, the Batman lurks not far behind, ready to pounce and break a leg or two. These days, for me, such legs more often take the form of argument propositions, and the Batman now rights through writing in order to topple unjust ideas and assumptions as a composition teacher in Gotham’s classrooms. Though born of humble beginnings and flawed to the point of being far removed from embodying the good completely, Batman is unafraid to stand for what he knows to be right. Perhaps we can’t all save the world, but we can save our worlds.
In some ways then, in dress slacks, loafers, and a polo, I am a superhero. I am Batman. So, still, whenever Gotham’s innocents are threatened and the bat signal illumes cloudy skies, the Dark Knight – like any superhero, any teacher, or mom or dad, or advocate, anyone who cares about the downtrodden and neglected in his or her Gotham alley – dons the cape and cowl, or the glasses and button-down, dropping the mild-mannered alias to do the dirty work and leave his corner of the city clean and safe for all. Whether or not we are the heroes Gotham deserves, if we care enough to act, we are the heroes Gotham needs.