Thursday, July 08, 2004

17. Batman (letter to Dick)

Dear Mr. Grayson,

I feel that I owe you a fuller explanation, if not an outright apology, for my behavior thus far. My story is lengthy and complex, so I have chosen to write down the essentials here. If you wish to know more after you have read this letter, I will be happy to explain further. For obvious reasons, however, I must request that you destroy this message after you have read it, and that you speak to no one about any of what follows.

Allow me to begin at the beginning. I was born into a wealthy and privileged Gotham City family; as a child, I had everything I could ever have wanted, and more. But my idyllic youth ended abruptly when both of my parents were murdered in cold blood. Their killer was never identified. I was 10 years old at the time.

Throughout my adolescence, I was passed from one relative to another until my parents' butler was officially designated my legal guardian after a protracted court case. Unable to find a true home for myself, however ornate my surroundings, I retreated into a fantasy world of comic book superheroes, detective fiction, and bodybuilding, vowing to avenge my parents' deaths with all the resources I had at my disposal. I resolved to develop my physical and mental abilities to a level equalling that of my fictitious heroes. When I reached maturity, I inherited a fortune which guaranteed I would never have to work a day in my life, beyond serving on the boards of numerous corporations in which my family holds a major stake.

At the age of 18, I began to travel the world on my own, mastering languages, studying human behavior, and cultivating the sophisticated air one expects of my elevated social standing. But this persona felt like a disguise to me, masking my true self, one I had already dubbed "The Bat-Man." I adopted the bat as a sort of totem animal because it is a small, peculiar-looking creature whose appearance is nonetheless capable of striking fear in those who do not understand it. Moreover, the bat is nocturnal, and I knew that my true work could only be carried out at night, in a dreamlike world of solitude and imagination.

At an age when most people discard their childhood fantasies, I had the means to hone mine; I strove to hold onto an illusion others would have abandoned in the daylight world of jobs and family. I spent the next 10 years acquiring practical skills and the technological tools of my trade and teaching myself all that I imagined a "superhero" would need to know. In retrospect, I'm not sure I had any intention at that point of moving my Batman persona into the public sphere; adopting it in private was simply something I felt I had to do for my own inner well-being. My alternate existence as Batman was my most closely guarded secret, the truth which gave me my only satisfaction in life.

A decade into this pursuit -- approximately 10 years ago -- I began to discover the existence of other individuals who nurtured similar dreams, men and women who, like me, had created alternate selves modeled on the heroes and villains of their youth. Through the newly emerging internet we started to find each other and create a common space in which to live out our fantasies. Our earliest encounters were strictly online, but within a fairly short period of time some of us began to meet face to face, albeit always in disguise. Anyone who did not share our tastes would have interpreted our encounters as harmless, if not childish, fun, but for the participants these interactions carry the power of transcendence, a power not to be wielded lightly.

I remember the first time I donned my uniform in front of another man, one who was also wearing a mask and costume of his own devising. It was as if, for the first time in my life, I was able to reveal my true self to a stranger. Our interaction that night was more intimate than any encounter I had ever experienced, and the realization that neither of us would have been able to recognize the other should we meet on the street the next day added to its intensity. Soon my evenings were filled with such activities. More and more characters began to present themselves, with names like The Riddler, The Penguin, The Sandman, and on and on. Some were "heroes," some "villains," a few crossed back and forth at will. Some modeled themselves on existing fictional characters; others, like me, created our own personae.

Alas, as seems to be the nature of the online world, our once closed community was quickly infiltrated by individuals with darker intentions. Moral lines which had once been clear to all participants were now being crossed with abandon, and our counter-world was tainted by real-life crimes. These began with harrassment and threatening e-mails, then escalated to computer viruses, then fraud and extortion. We tried to police ourselves; the man you now know as the Joker made his earliest appearances in our virtual community as a con man calling himself the Red Hood. The Hood was the first character to be expelled from our circles, but he returned with a vengeance as the Joker. He was not the first of the infiltrators to emerge in the daylight world, but his exploits were certainly the most colorful--and the first I know of to turn homicidal. The rest of us cringed as the newspapers began to report his crimes: what started as pranks and public disturbances soon led to robberies, kidnappings, and outright murder.

At that point, I realized that everything in my past was now coming together and steering me unavoidably toward my destiny. If my involvement in the online community had inadvertently unleashed such unthinkable madness into the outside world, it was now my responsibility to enter the larger world myself as the Batman, to try to right the wrongs being committed by my former peers.

And that, Mr. Grayson, is what led me to the public notoriety with which I have been saddled for the last 3 to 4 years. Although I have taken pains to avoid interactions with civilians, reports of my appearances began attracting media attention, and I found myself an inadvertent celebrity--a role which threatens my ability to do my work. Some of the characters I encounter now--like the gentleman you met in the park, who calls himself the Black Eagle--are harmless friends (albeit ones about whose unmasked lives I know next to nothing); others--I believe you have seen their work--are dangerous criminals. Unfortunately, it has become harder and harder to tell the difference.

I deeply reget every harm that my actions have caused you. It was never my intention to involve innocent bystanders in this world, and I will certainly understand if our paths never again cross.

I also realize that my explanation may be difficult for you to fathom or accept; I still have trouble understanding and accepting it myself. If you have any questions about any aspect of it, I will be more than willing to elaborate to the best of my abiity. (For obvious reasons, my alternate identity must remain a secret.) Should you wish to speak with me again, simply affix the attached image--my logo--to your window, and I will return to your apartment the following night.

Regardless of what you decide, I must again ask that you destroy this message, and that you not divulge any of its contents to anyone. For your own safety as well as my own, secrecy is a must.