Howard Chaykin starts Batman: Dark Allegiances with a borrowed image. The iconic superhero is framed to fit Jack Welch’s 1955 Jello ad campaign, the conical element of his decorative cowl prominently on display. His eyes, though, suggest a man who’s lost the grip of his identity, it co-opted for another cause. Following this image, Bruce Wayne / Batman, via narrative captions scripted by Chaykin, explains to the reader why he’s different than a member of the KKK as he subsequently pounds this mob into the ground. He sees them as men “pushed to the wall of frustrated fury by the brutal nature of the times.” And while they wear masks, his is more like an onion skin, meant to be peeled to reveal the numerous, complicated angles that pertain to his person.
Chaykin imbues Bruce Wayne / Batman with a youthful vigor even when flamboyantly hateful people are his targets, and they to him. In this Elseworld’s interpretation (a DC Comics imprint dedicated to variations of familiar characters), Bruce, essentially, never grew up. He’s a playboy industrial designer who wants to offer the world a theme park as his next venture, playing cowboy on the side. Chaykin draws Batman as if he’s a coiled spring bouncing through combat. He glides through the air and blocks bullets, and in some panels it’s as if his arm detaches and simply maneuvers through a crowd of foes, knocking each of them out like soda cans along a level fence, subject to the hand of some passerby kid. Violence of little consequence.
Chaykin’s Bruce Wayne is nothing but a guy equipped with a square jaw and blockhead smile, eager to say something clever. Despite Kitty Grimalkin’s (a Catwoman stand-in) task to threaten Wayne, he, knowing so, is only excited by the notion of having an attractive woman at his side involved in such a plot. He never takes her seriously. Even though she knows his secret identity, he won’t give her the credit of it. And when she explains what brought her to him (a case of blackmail involving a pornographic film Grimalkin is the star of), Wayne mocks the idea, suggesting they should steal the film back and watch it.
These interactions characterize Bruce Wayne / Batman as a man happily at home within his delusion. Others have offered the interpretation of Batman as someone who’s misunderstood himself, most notably Alan Moore with The Killing Joke, but Chaykin offers a character who sees the signs, and chooses to ignore them. As the character indicates in the comic’s opening sequence, “If I start worrying about that, I’m in deep trouble.” So rather he fights and smiles, clinging to his botched idea of world order because it gives him purpose and pleasure. Of course, this is also Chaykin just choosing to have some fun, and that choice reflects much of what Batman readers do when they pick up a Batman comic. They’re deciding to engage with a ridiculous idea simply because it seems like fun, and little thought is required.
But, with those elements in mind, Chaykin sheds some sort of truth, and you can certainly paint a damning portrait from it. That of a man conscious of a world and its bruises who looks the other way, with a hedonistic twinkle in his eye, aware of opportunity.
That man isn’t fiction.
The Welch ads show animals in profile eating or serving Jello, and they’re accompanied by captions describing their specific physical traits. Those traits then emphasize the great promise and excitement of Jello, as product, dining accessory, and conversation starter. Chaykin’s image lacks the dessert and caption, but the basic principal of the image is the same. A creature of the world removed of its habitat and self, held so a reader may stick it next to something else to take it apart and measure it.
In essence, that’s Chaykin’s approach to Batman. Take a brooding totem away from its emotional ghetto, and supply an opportunity for it to laugh at itself. When Chaykin says the book is about “Hitler in a Hawaiian shirt” in Howard Chaykin: Conversations he’s not wrong. It is. But it’s not without the stoic Welch image at the front, placing the character in context as the pop culture product Batman is. A character under the cover of a plated cowl, protected from the world his eyes see. As a character – real in his own reality – he operates individually as his emperor of self, making decisions, inspiring consequence by taking the law into his own hands, but as an image he’s just something to be used or briefly considered. A figment of the mind, like Adolf today, he can be dressed in a Hawaiian shirt for laughs.