Wertham's Ghost
Posted: February 5, 2002; Revised: April 19, 2006

"Oh, Batman, I’m afraid you’ll just have to hold me," trills the Batwoman (Batman #159, November 1963). "I’m still shaky after fighting Clayface, and you’re soooo strong!" Kathy Kane had strategy, no doubt about it: if the man is reluctant, want until he’s dazed and can hardly stand and then pounce on him. And so ends another episode in the new Bat soap opera.


Meet Kathy Kane (Batwoman) and Betty Kane (the Bat-Girl), two female leads supposedly created to fight crime, but in fact intended by the publishers to meet three goals:

1.To attract a younger audience to the Batman titles.
2.To attract more girls into that audience.
3.To socialize (i.e. lighten up) the Batman they worked for.

These are marginal reasons to create a character. Certainly the timing couldn’t have been worse. Television had arrived to threaten printed media. More comic characters now competed for fewer readers. Also, the Kanes were created after Wertham’s campaign. This meant they were expected to address his complaints (which was something the leading men should have done themselves). Therefore the socialization of Batman and Robin included proving that the men were heterosexual – and the burden shifted to the Kanes to be woman enough for the job.

Les Daniels, author of Batman: The Complete History, points out a flaw in this strategy:

"When Bruce Wayne was mistakenly jailed, [Batwoman] took over as Robin’s boss, and it wasn’t much later that Dick Grayson had a story-length nightmare, immortalized on the cover of Batman #122 (March 1959), concerning ‘The Marriage of Batman and Batwoman.’ The happy couple are depicted leaving the church arm in arm, while Robin stands on the sidelines and worries, ‘Gosh! What’ll become of me now?’ Whether or not the creators were attempting to reassure everyone that Batman was heterosexual, this story may have succeeded in creating anxieties in boys about females being the enemies of friendship and loyalty" (p. 92).

A more blatant casualty was honesty. Batman had a problem (an enamoured woman he didn’t want), and he decided the best way to handle it was to lie. "In Batman #153 (February 1963), Batwoman responded to an apparently impending doom by pledging her love to Batman, and he reciprocated, only to declare his comments a white lie once the danger was past" (ibid, p. 92). Why would Batwoman want such a man? These antics made it hard for readers to root for either one of them.

Robin fared worst of all. His ordeal in Batman #144 (December 1961) proved so unforgettable that it has been immortalized in the collection Batman in the Sixties.

The plot is straightforward. Robin dreads the very sight of Bat-Girl. She likes to hug and kiss him. When he is informed that he must spend a whole week alone with her, Robin gasps. Bat-Girl rejoices. Let the smooching begin! Suddenly Robin can endure no more. He is sick of feeling like a hunted animal (he’s only twelve). What is the fastest, surest way to get rid of her?

Robin could say the first thing that comes to his mind, namely, that he’s at that age when girls still have cooties. This might prompt Betty to declare, "I will wait for you," which is not what he wants. He could be brutally honest: that he doubts he will ever want her, at any age, and must list all her character flaws as proof of her unsuitability. This would work but would hurt her feelings. Worse, it would not make her vanish; as far as the characters know, they will be co-workers for life. Therefore Robin pretends to be flattered but unavailable. He tells Betty that his heart belongs to another. This makes the Bat-Girl so jealous that she goes home in tears.

Later Bat-Mite visits to comfort her. He likes Betty Kane. He believes he can make Robin like her. What has The Other Woman got that Bat-Girl hasn’t got? And so the two set out on a series of misadventures designed to make Robin notice her. Robin notices, all right, because their harebrained schemes get the Bat-Girl kidnapped.

Robin realizes that Bat-Girl will continue trying to impress him, even if she endangers innocent bystanders or herself or him. He must convince her that she is no match for the other woman. Only then will she become discouraged and quit trying. So Robin introduces her to her rival : a statue of Justice holding her scales. This is the woman who has stolen his heart.

"You see, Batman has often told me that his crime-fighting career is a full-time job, and that he can't risk a big romance now -- not until he's ready to retire. If Batman can make that kind of sacrifice, I guess I'm man enough to do it too."

To Robin’s horror the adults interfere. They "announce that Robin is too young to make such a decision and will therefore be obliged to endure Bat-Girl’s unwanted advances while the adults look on approvingly" (Daniels p. 94). ("Oh, Robin! Then it’s all right for me to kiss you now!" And she does … after putting his burning face in a headlock.) Daniels concludes dryly, "If a comic book could actually turn people gay as Dr. Wertham had suggested seven years earlier, this one might have had the power to do it."

Let us return to Wertham’s allegation that Batman and Robin themselves were gay. The comics tried to meet this allegation indirectly, by giving Batman and Robin female love interests. The attempt failed. The men did not want the specific women created for them. So what did the indirect approach do?

First of all it robbed Batwoman and Bat-Girl of the few triumphs they did earn, by reducing their accomplishments to a form of courtship display. While their peers studied piano and dance to attract and please a man, they fought crime to attract and please a man. Thus their motives ceased to be to fight crime for its own sake.

The indirect approach also legitimized Wertham’s once-groundless accusation that newer characters were created to serve as sexual outlets for the older ones. It implied that Batman should be expected to utilize any partner, adult or minor, male or female, who happened to cross his field of vision. Therefore any partner created to work with Batman ought to consider this "service" part of the job description.

These problems made it easy for the "New Look" of 1964 to discard the Kanes without debate or explanation.

The Barbara Gordon character owes her existence to the Sixties live series. The show was high camp and proud of it. When it became a runaway hit, the television network asked DC Comics to create a Batgirl so the series could broaden its appeal by including her. The result was an adult Batgirl, Jim Gordon’s daughter Barbara.

Barbara was a transitional figure between girly stereotypes and Grrl Power. She tended to scream for no reason. She still decided that kissing Robin full on the mouth was the best way to win an argument with him (Batman Family #1). (Robin retains just enough of that flummoxed run-for-the-hills instinct to make this believable.) Batgirl fussed over her appearance, but did it to please herself rather than a man. Consider how the 1968 comic Batgirl’s Costume Cut-ups! (Detective #371) winks at the inconsistencies in the character. Batgirl has judo and karate skills, but the plot shows her repeatedly freshening up while Batman and Robin fight for their lives. At one point Batgirl drops out of a brawl to inspect a run in her tights. Incredibly the criminals stop pummelling Batman and Robin to whistle at her exposed leg. The heroes then dispatch the villains easily. Robin notes glumly that this distraction was the best help Batgirl has provided yet.

Part of Batgirl’s problem was that she acted younger and sillier than Barbara-the-librarian. She had no real reason to become an outlaw (for that is what vigilantes are); she was bringing her schoolgirl fantasies to life. The other part was the persistent use of the character to inject male-female tension into a storyline. Her role alternated between battle-of-the-sexes ("anything you can do, I can do better") and socializing (lightening up) the men in her new life. For example, in Detective #369 Batgirl teams up with Robin for a week. Enforcing her temporary role as senior partner, Batgirl makes Robin ride in her cycle’s sidecar, which she has thoughtfully monogrammed for him. (Shades of the Sixties series and its carefully labelled Bat Cave.) Batman groans that Robin has discovered girls. He’s annoyed. They have work to do. In fact this story had nothing to do with romance, but the idea of a Dick/Barbara relationship had to be mentioned whether relevant or not.

Note for future reference: in Batman Family #1 Barbara states plainly that she likes Dick Grayson because he’s "not like that guardian of his, that worthless playboy Bruce Wayne." In other words, Barbara does not like Bruce Wayne. In all her youthful incarnations, print and screen, the character remains consistent on this point. Sometimes she tolerates him better than at other times, but she is not attracted to him.

What made a Dick/Barbara romance possible was that both candidates apparently dated everyone else on the planet first. (At least they learned all the wrong ways to choose a mate.) Dick alone flirted with Princess Starfire (The New Teen Titans), Mig Brewster (Nightwing: Ties That Bind) and his landlady Bridget Clancy. Then of course there is Dick’s famous (or infamous) one-night stand with Huntress.

Dick never found anything in these women to match that spark, that intangible something he saw in Barbara. For years fans debated whether he saw more than was there. Some readers never could take Batgirl seriously, or Barbara either until she became Oracle (and that process took 21 years). This made it easier for them to overlook Dick’s wandering eye on the grounds that the Dominoed Daredoll, the Caped Chick, seemed too shallow for him.

Dick/Barbara proponents reacted to Dick’s social life with anger or amusement, but they never lost faith. After a decade (or two, or three), both characters met all their expectations. When Gotham City collapsed in the Cataclysm quake, Dick’s first thoughts were for Barbara. Where is she? Is she okay? Clearly their romance was inevitable. At this point in the post-quake comics Nightwing and Oracle are busy making up for lost time.

The animated continuity developed the Dick/Barbara romance differently. For one thing, the B:TAS Batgirl ("Shadow of the Bat") was the only incarnation who had a compelling reason, a crime-relative motive, to resort to vigilantism. (Her father had been framed and nearly executed.) The characters were mature, intelligent and realistic from the start. Neither faced serious competition for the other’s affection, with the possible exception of the presumptuous Gil Mason.

"Sub-Zero" advances Dick and Barbara’s relationship to the point that the near-proposal in TNBA’s "Old Wounds" seems inevitable and believable. The couple have planned a romantic vacation on the coast. Dick almost dies trying to rescue Barbara from Freeze. He also proves he cares more for her than for money when he trades his roadster for a speedier motorcycle. (How many people would give their car away?) All that matters to Dick is Barbara’s welfare – a fact that’s not lost on her father.

Jim Gordon teases Dick for dating his daughter. He cautions Dick not to get complacent merely because he’s the frontrunner. There are many other young men anxious to take his place. That may be true, but everything Jim says and does makes plain that this suitor is his favorite.

Jim Gordon’s fondness for Dick is not an isolated incident or convenient plot device. It is consistent with the old commissioner’s character. Jim didn’t just watch Robin grow up at the Batman’s side. He watched young Dick grow up at Bruce Wayne’s side. It was Detective Gordon who interviewed Dick after his parents were killed ("Robin's Reckoning"). It was he who approved Dick’s placement at Wayne Manor. Jim kept them informed of developments. He visited and checked up on them. Gordon genuinely cared about this orphaned boy and was determined to see that he got justice.

Gordon never did catch the man who killed Dick’s parents. When the killer (Tony Zucco) was finally apprehended, Gordon came down from police headquarters to arrest the man himself. Why not send someone else? Because Gordon wanted the killer behind bars as badly as the Batman did. Jim Gordon pursued this case, unseen and unappreciated, for almost ten years. Now he has the satisfaction of knowing that young Dick grew into an outstanding young man, and of knowing that he played a part in it. Jim is well prepared to accept Dick into his family.

It didn't happen.

The B:TAS Dick and Barbara were arguably the First Couple of the Bat mythos. If anyone could combine love and Duty, one thinks it would be them. So, if they cannot make a romantic relationship work, then maybe nobody can.

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