At the time of writing the US is paying witness to one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice and corruptions of the legal system we’ve seen in quite some time. I’m referring of course to the native water protectors at Standing Rock facing down the corporate machinery and military police of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
If you’re unfamiliar with the details, an oil pipeline was deemed too dangerous to go through the Dakota capital of Bismarck and so has been rerouted through native lands of the Sioux people against their will.
Rather than just let a soulless corporation steal their land and poison their resources the Sioux have taken to non-violently blocking construction. In response, authorities have responded with near deadly force- spraying protestors with freezing water and even shooting a woman’s arm off with rubber bullets.
The whole thing is an absolute cluster and here are some links if you want to give support to the protesters, but we’re here to talk about comics. Specifically, the entire situation reminded me of the comic that first got me interested in Native Rights, one of the best Batman stories of the modern era- Medicine Soldiers.
Firstly, a little background. In the late 2000s, Grant Morrison took over the main Batman series with an incredibly ambitious mission statement- to write a version of Batman where the character’s entire history was canon. This meant everything from the weird, ‘50s sci-fi to the illegitimate son he had with Talia in the ‘70s were back on the table.
It’s a dynamite run that’s really out there yet hangs together shockingly well. A lot of this comes down to Morrison just being a great writer and having interesting ideas on things to do with the various Silver Age elements he’s co-opting. That’s where Batman Incorporated and this issue in particular come into play.
In the 2008 comic Final Crisis Bruce Wayne died fighting the God of Evil Darkseid, with Dick Grayson taking up the mantle of Batman. A year or so later Bruce came back to life (he was lost in time or something) but rather than reclaim the mantle of the Bat, he decided to expand his operation and launch Batman Inc.
Batman Inc. was an initiative to cultivate a network of Batman-esc crime fighters in a ring around the world, mainly drawing on Batman’s allies and fellow crime busters in the group International League of Batmen. While most of the members were from foreign nations, this issue introduced a third domestic Batman with Man of Bats and Red Raven, homemade heroes of the reservation.
The reason these two end up roped into things is that they’ve been targeted by the enemy Batman is building his army to fight: Leviathan. They’re a cultish terrorist organization trafficking in mind control agents and actively targeting communities law and government prefer to ignore with a serious grudge for Batmen, making the reservation an easy target.
However, the book isn’t some kind of last stand, super team-up type story where the heroes join up at the start to find doomsday weapons or fight a legion of goons, that’s no the kind of heroes Man of Bats and Red Raven are.
No, much like the ‘Medicine Soldiers’ title suggest, Man of Bats and Red Raven aren’t the typical superhero type. They do fight crime a bit, but that’s not their primary job- they’re community heroes more than anything else.
They fix people’s air conditioning and help people get off drugs, they bring food and leading protests; they’re an actual part of the community rather than urban legends or celebrity superheroes. They don’t even actually have secret identities, Man of Bats identity as Dr. Bill Great Eagle is widely known in the community.
It’s a thoroughly unique approach to the superhero concept, especially so within the DC universe. As the name suggests, Dr. Great Eagle got the idea for Man of Bats from Batman’s activities but his decision to use the role of the superhero to lend himself mythic weight as a community activist completely flips the idea on its ear.
It’s a very deliberate subversion of the very notion of Batman, a critique of the core concept similar to the one’s often voiced online. Man of Bats fights crime, but his real enemy is the roots of crime- poverty, hunger, hopelessness, and a broken system that’s abandoned his community to fend for itself. What’s more, it’s also heavily intimated that what Man of Bats is doing is actually working.
As I said, the book does feature crime fighting when Leviathan decides to take over and upgrade a local gang called the Redz to use as a proxy war against Man of Bats. The Redz make for an interesting antagonist as they’re led by Sam Black Elk, the son of the man who actually revealed Man of Bats’ identity to the public.
He’s a loathsome little toad who serves as the perfect embodiment of everything Man of Bats stands against; cynicism, apathy, and petty cruelty. That weakness makes Sam the perfect entry point for Leviathan but he’s also their only real entry point. Pretty much everyone else they get, either authority figures or gang members, are people they’ve had to bring in because the community Man of Bats built here was too connected to leave them an opening.
They also do a lot with the relationship between Great Eagle and his son Charlie, a 19-year old whose tired of being stuck on the reservation and is desperate for real superhero action. While Great Eagle is the fun, heart and soul of the team, mostly because he’s bigger than Batman and willing to just clobber people with surgical precision, Charlie is where the book finds its angry core.
While some of his anger comes from still being his dad’s sidekick even as a young man his real rage is rooted in the overwhelming nature of his situation and the patronizing way he and his community are viewed. This is where the implicit critique of the Bat mythos becomes incredibly explicit, and the comic finds an angry call to action all its own.
Batman himself doesn’t appear in the comic till the halfway point, and he mainly interacts with Charlie during his time in the comic. While he does help turn things around for the two, he’s really there for Charlie to confront Batman’s own racist misconception of their community and short-sighted view of what being a superhero actually entails.
There’s no retreat for the reader in their interactions, no island of safety in the euphemisms often applied to the real life communities this is based on. The comic makes it brutally clear- this isn’t just life on a budget and it’s not something to be fixed with rocket cars and zip lines; it’s an American third world, and their archenemy is poverty and systemic injustice. It’s a harsh chaser to the optimism of Man of Bats but a necessary one to remind the reader that this is a real problem in the real world right now.
If I haven’t said it enough already- Medicine Soldiers stands up as one of the best Batman stories of the decade and easily my favorite single issue Batman story. The compressed time frame of the story in no way dilutes the drama of the situation as the real stakes are equally compressed. It’s a small story about communities and families facing down huge problems, and a call to action for us in the real world to confront those same problems. It’s a reminder that we have the power to build our own communities and be our own heroes, even when the institutions of society have abandoned us.
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