“The Victim Syndicate” published in Detective Comics #943–947 continues writer James Tynion IV and the rotating art team trend of using post-modern themes to question the efficacy of, and reinforce their costumed cast. In “Victim Syndicate” ideas of memory, its usage, and what it means to forget, are explored as Batman and his Bat-Family are attacked by the titular Syndicate, composed of innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire of their war on crime. In exploring these ideas I will be predominantly focusing on the work of psychoanalysis Jaques Lacan and using other textual examples from the Batman canon to extrapolate concepts and themes explored in “Victim Syndicate”
First, some quick backstory on the previous two arcs Detective Comics was involved in. Batman, the Bat-Family, and Gotham City have been through a lot recently. In Tynion’s first arc, “Rise of the Batmen” the team is formed and comes into conflict with a rogue element of the U.S. military led by Col. Jacob Kane, Batwoman (Kate Kane’s) father (and Bruce’s Uncle). Col. Kane has based his “terrorist haunting” unit on the methods and iconography of the Batman, they drive around in vehicles similar to the Tumbler from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. The Colonel planned to use swarms of militarized drones to decimate portions of Gotham City in order to kill people he believed to be members of the super terrorist group, the League of Shadows. In the process of stopping this mad plan, Tim Drake, the third Robin, “died” — not really, but, for all intents and purposes he is treated as dead. In the crossover “Night of the Monster Men”, Gotham is devastated by an attack of kaiju-esque monsters targeting Batman. This leaves Batman and the Bat-Family with many innocent victims and a very personal loss on their minds going into “The Victim Syndicate”
For Lacan, memory is a psychological process that creates a “symbolic history … a chain of signifiers”[i](113) this chain forms and articulates the subjects history, informing their sense of self. In using the metaphor of a chain, Lacan privileges a type or class of memory. That is one that can be linked to past events and those signifiers. This isn’t just remembering what you had for breakfast last Friday or where you put the car keys, but major symbolic events. However, Lacan also emphasized the ability of the subject to misrecognize itself and by extension other signifiers and the meanings developed from them. The instability of memory becomes a stepping stone to the overall schizophrenic self developed out of post-modern theory.
In the case of Bruce Wayne-Batman, or any other costumed vigilante, the symbolic chain begins at the moment of trauma. For Bruce Wayne this is the murder of his parents. This is a sequence that has been turned into a fetish object in the Bat-mythos. No adaptation in any medium is free from skipping over what is in the top 3 most well-known parts of a superheroes origin in comics. While Bruce is generally depicted as a young child at the time, and would have traveled from the imaginary phase into the realm of the Law of the Father by then, the loss of both Mother and Father is break in that traditional cycle of development, creating an even more psychically fraught position. He becomes unmoored from Marxist theories, Louis Althusser’s ideological apparatus of the family and so free to journey outside of this cultural, legal, framework into extra-legal action of vigilantism eventually building a new surrogate family, the Bat-Family. Which itself becomes its own ideological production point. As the inception point of that journey the memory and meaning taking from that point is the kernel of his ideological practice going forward. Making any change or deviation from that kernel wide reaching and potentially destructive.
A Vulture supercut takes this fetishization to the extreme by placing, at the time, all live action and animated recreations of this moment, side-by-side, in a 3x3 grid, with all the sequences playing off one another in real-time, an act of videographic juxtaposition.
This orgiastic display of full motion murder, with it’s sequences coming in an out of the video frame, can be understood when looking at the work of Catherine Grant, and video essayist, Kogonada. Both create videographic works juxtaposing multiple videos side by side as a means to elucidate their similarities or differences. Grant, noting “Such frames encourage the roaming of a “mobile eye,” an “active eye,” “introceptively, subjectively busy,” in a “critical trawling operation” of continuous and unfolding comparison.”[ii]
Turning our “active eye” to the supercut, we can see the similarities and differences of their presentation. These sequences are predominantly presented as flashback memories, brought on by dreams or triggered by symbolic reference. Gotham “Pilot”, the final scene in the supercut, is the only one not mediated by recollection or large gaps in narrative time. As a part of the symbolic chain of Batman, we can begin to separate out the “signifier” and “signified”. Terms originally derived from the work of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Think of the signifier as the object or representation of the signified. The signified is the deeper meaning that can connect a series of signifiers together. While, this was a linguistic approach it has been expanded in film theory to use the elements of film, a similar application can be given to comics.
There is the ability to come up with multiple combinations of these in regards to the murder of the Wayne’s. While each sequence is similar there are differing areas of emphasis. In relation to “The Victim Syndicate” I want to emphasize the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne. In their presentation, his parents are transformed into the sign of victims of crime. They did nothing wrong but go down a bad alley. Bruce, on the other hand, is the survivor, a victim, that persists and remembers, eventually dedicating his life to stopping harm to innocent bystanders. And, in doing so repeatedly reenacts and “right” the initial act that caused him to don the cape and cowl. This sort of repetition would be indicative of some mental unease but is narratively negated, and in some sense valorized, through the adherence to a code.
In “The Victim Syndicate” memory is treated akin to a haunting by a supernatural presence. This presence of a dark past becoming personified as the villain is present in many Batman stories, from Jack Napier as Joker in Batman ’89 to the Phantasm in Mask of the Phantasm. The three characters most “haunted” in this arc are Bruce Wayne aka Batman, Stephanie Brown aka Spoiler, and Basil Karlo aka Clayface, by their memories (or lack thereof), affecting them in different ways.
|#945 Tynion, Barrionuevo-Carnero, Hanna, Lucas, Patrizio|
In the case of Stephanie Brown, as the former girlfriend of Tim Drake she is taking his death harder than the rest of the distraught team. She has withdrawn from her friends Cassandra Cain and Harper Row. His absence has left a void in her life and forced her to reconsider her wants and desires, including donning the hood of the Spoiler. Eventually, this recollection gives way to what Lacan would call specifically reminiscence, which is contrasted with recollection/remembering as an imaginary process built on recapturing the emotions felt at the time[iii]. At one point, Stephanie visits a shade of Tim Drake in an attempt to reconnect with her former partner and make sense of the world around her. However, this reminiscence by Stephanie eventually turns from backwards to forwards forming a projection of an idyllic, normal life for her and Tim. One where “Tim would be in college right now, and not buried underground.” This desire drives her to subdue both her former Bat-Family and the members of the Victim Syndicate, seeing them both as perpetual destructive elements, leaving to form her own “side” in a conflict she cannot end.
For Basil Karlo, the reforming criminal known as Clayface, memory and the past are akin to waking up from a period of black out drunkenness. He is stuck with no coherent memories and a past he does not recognize, but still excepts as legitimate. An accident caused him to gain the ability to morph his body into the appearance of anything or anyone he wanted. Most commonly his from is depicted as a hulking golem-esque monster. It is in this form that the physical and chemical make up of his brain changes, leading to a dissolution of his moral center and transforming him into a monster of pure id. At the start of Tynion’s run on Detective, he could no longer revert back to his Basil, his “real-self”, he had been so separated from this identity. He can now, with the help of a special wrist band.
One of the members of the Victim Syndicate, Glory Griffin, aka Mudface, is a former friend and victim of his. She was a fan and production assistant on one of Basil’s last films but was hurt and doused with similar chemicals during one of his mad rampages as Clayface. During the Syndicate’s first attack, she left him with a photo album of people he’s hurt. “I’m looking through these pages and I’m sure I hurt all these people, but I don’t remember any of it.” In defining or accepting a past, it creates for him a connection to the symbolic chain Lacan spoke of, gaining some sense of stability and sanity from it.
|#945 Tynion, Barrionuevo-Carnero, Hanna, Lucas, Patrizio|
These characters are all haunted and driven by their past. It is what they do with that energy that defines them as hero, criminal, or something in between. By the end of the arc, Basil recommits to reforming and helping Glory find herself again, by visiting her in Arkham Asylum to talk about whatever she wants.
Similar to Basil, Batman’s haunting isn’t memories he remembers but ones he has repressed to his unconscious.
What does it mean to forget? From a functional perspective, it is the failure to recall something that had been learned. But what can forgetting do to ones psyche? Loathe as I am to bring up The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bollard, the monologue by the Joker on memory — pictured — gives example to the effects of forgetting, or the rejection of memory. “But can we live without them? Memories are what our reason is based upon. If we can’t face them, we deny reason itself! … We aren’t tied down to rationality! There is no sanity clause!” He described madness as the “Emergency Exit” for an unbearable past or memory.
If the Joker’s stance is derived from an ahistoric stance, a rejection of his own history (or at least one specific rendition of history), does this make Batman more, or at least closer to, sane? He is the one who remembers, but what happens if he begins to forget? Lacan, and most later writers, emphasize the tenuous position or delineation between sanity and madness. “The Victim Syndicate” is a story where Batman has begun to forget.
At the start of “Victim Syndicate”, Bruce is cold and guarded … more so than usual. Recently having relented to Batwoman’s suggestion the team go through psych evaluations — which don’t turn out well. Before those can be fully evaluated, while in their civilian identities, the team is caught up in the Victim Syndicates attack on the police gala. An event put on by new team member Lucas Fox aka Batwing meant to show off new non-lethal weaponry the GCPD could purchase. The Syndicate only just barely escape without mortally harming anyone. Syndicate leader, the First Victim uses this audience to taunt their costumed adversary as the unintended consequence of this extra-legal war on crime.
Later, while on patrol, Batman passes by an underpass and begins to recollect about the first night in the cape and cowl. He was taking down members of the Red Hood Gang. During this moment, he remembers that a man and his husband were caught in the crossfire. One of them died, and Bruce covered their medical bills for the next year.
As presented by the art team, there is nothing in the art to doubt the reliability of this recollection. Colorist Adriano Lucas distinguishes past from present by making the “past” panels saturated in a crimson red, penciler Al Barrionuevo places these memories outside the Batmobile window. It is the second half of the splash page that reveals this recollection to be in some sense illusory. Batman took down the Red Hood Gang on his second night in the costume. The first night featured a more personal encounter involving a city busy. In both cases, Bruce and Alfred (surrogate father and conscience), have forgotten the names of the innocents hurt in their early excursions. “I used to know al their names. I thought I could always remember the innocent people who got hurt in this war. But I don’t remember their names, Alfred”
This sudden amnesia and nostalgia fueled remanence makes it clear that this repression is a coping mechanism, as a means to deal with the loss of yet another Robin, Tim Drake. It is also a humanizing maneuver by Tynion, showing the fallability of the traditionally cold and detached lead. Objects and ideas that are repressed to the unconscious have a habit of haunting the conscious, bringing an unease and destructive tendencies. The Victim Syndicate, their anonymous leader the First Victim in particular, are the personification of these repressed memories. The cover to issue #946 pictures the Victim Syndicate surrounding Batman, rising up through chalk outline graves as if the unconscious thoughts are rising to consciousness.
External, metaphoric, manifestations bring with them a danger and clear ability to fix the problem but the danger of internal psychic damage is also great. A failure to remember severs that connection to the symbolic chain, meaning Bruce no longer recognizes the innocents he ostensibly protects. Unable to make the connection, he never the less continues, repetitively, his practice of roaming Gotham city streets. Which is now made an even greater act of narcissism and further flirtation with physical-mental destruction. Transforming this into an increasingly un-heroic act, as it is vigilante justice disconnected from the empathetic code that defines hero from villain in these stories. The failure to recall and break this cycle of actions is what Lacan would call “acting out”[iv] with the only way to break it is by remembering. The example of The Killing Joke provides an example of the long term effects, but the First Victim themself provides a dark mirror for Bruce to stare into. After their defeat, they are institutionalized in Arkahm, in a uniform and their mask. They have become akin to Jon Doe in Se7en with no DNA or other biological matches in the databases, a being with no ties to society. They are pictured repeatedly drawing the same message on a pad of paper “No More” with Batsymbol. They were unable to recall a time before they became a “victim” and it has disintegrated them.
To avert annihilation, Batman must remember. It takes Spoiler’s intervention to temporarily stop this amoral rampage. Forcing everyone, including the reader, to stop and look around and see what this battle has wrought. More innocents frightened, put in danger and hurt, the battle took place at an emergency shelter meant to heal people.
It is in this moment that Batman, fully recollects and reconnects to that symbolic history. For Lacan “recollection does not merely involve recalling something to consciousness, but also communicating this to an Other by means of speech.”[v] This is done two stages. First he recognizes the Victim Syndicate as victims and tells them he is sorry, to let him help them now. The second comes in reconciling with Batwoman, and urging her to reconnect with her disgraced Father, that he was acting out because of the loss of Tim. And that she needs to try and reconnect with him in someway otherwise risk turning into him. He is Batman so no one else has to be.
If forgetting is the failure to recall something learned, the inverse would be remembering and learning something from that recollection. What dose Bruce finally remember? Tim Drake, and his ability to remind and make him see the “bigger picture” beyond the repetitive bashing of criminals on the streets and actually doing some good in their world. In remembering Tim, Bruce reconnects to his symbolic history but in a new way. Recognizing that Tim was a victim in his actions but also that the Batman is a concept that has grown beyond personal vengeance, into something that has its tendrils at many levels of society spawning new ideas that weren’t always intentioned but also doing good.
For an arc hinged on memory, there is only one long form flashback in the story. At the start of #946, there is a 3 page flashback to a discussion between Bruce and Tim before they start the team. Batman ever the outsider can’t see or admit what he’s really doing. Tim is right there to remind him and show what he’s doing and the even greater possibilities these pooled resources could bring. It positions Tim as Bruce’s link to humanity and sanity but also explains the larger purpose of the Bat-Family as that anchor for Bruce to not fall into the darkness and madness.
When it comes to post-modern superhero stories, there is a tendency towards if not cynicism a “gritty realism” (a loaded almost memetic term at this point) that disenchants the fantasy and grandeur of these icons and characters. The works of Alan Moore with Watchmen and Marvelman/Miracleman showed capes in something resembling a realist circumstance in order to highlight the inherent destructive, absurd, tendencies of these figures. They are also products that are (a tenuous link in Marvelman aside) purposefully positioned to exist outside of the mainstream of superhero books. Detective Comics, along with Action Comics, are at the heart of DC’s mainstream. They cannot give in or condone the cynicism or darkness produced by those works. That didn’t stop Tynion from using these post-modern ideas as foundation and context generative, and in an impressive turn used to reinforce the status quo of the DC mainstream. “Victim Syndicate” ends on a note of recognition and rebirth. Recognizing that the idyllic normal world of Stephanie Browns dreams is just “not the world we live in” and maybe one their costumed actions isn’t capable of producing. It is, however, the world they’ve got so they must remember, fight for some sense of stability, and continue onwards.
[i] Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, 109–110
[ii] Catherine Grant, “Videographic Experiments in Intertextual Film Studies”, http://www.tft.ucla.edu/mediascape/Winter2013_DejaViewing.html
[iii] Evans, Dictionary, 162
[iv] Evans, Dictionary, 2