Bruce Wayne's verbal legacy

From Zamm! to “Holy Interplanetary Yardstick, Batman!”: a critical analysis

Yale law librarian Fred R. Shapiro is editor of the Yale Book of Quotations and quotations columnist for the Yale Alumni Magazine.

Until now, Yalies sensitive to their university's reputation in the cartoon world could only cringe whenever the supercentenarian Charles Montgomery Burns appeared on The Simpsons—swindling his workers out of their dental benefits, perhaps, or exerting all his effort to roll a bowling ball feebly into the gutter. For the greed-crazed Burns, Class of 1914, was by far the best-known fictional Yalie active today (see "You Can Quote Them," January/February). No alternate animated alumnus existed to challenge this creation of Harvard-educated Simpsons writers.

But now, everything has changed. Yale has the Caped Crusader.

Bruce Wayne's Blue background was known only to a few until last fall, when Mark R. Dwyer '75JD happened to read a newspaper article about a Yale Law Library exhibit on comic books and the law. He wrote to Mike Widener, rare-books librarian and coordinator of the exhibit (which was curated by Mark S. Zaid). "I wondered," he asked, "if you have seen the attached 'proof' that Batman went to Yale Law School?" He thus introduced to Yale the Detective Comics page reproduced on page 34. (Dwyer, a judge on the New York State Court of Claims, notes that he had help finding the evidence. He knew of the panel because a fellow student had showed it to him in law school, but when he tried to track it down in 1991, he couldn't recall the comic it appeared in. Another alumnus, William Lee Frost '51JD, consulted Bat-expert and collector Joe Desris, who located the elusive panel in 1994.)

Dwyer is surely right that the Diploma of Law hanging in Bruce Wayne's study is "proof." True, its wording and format are highly unusual. And its geographic references are mysterious: the diploma is from YALE UNIVERSITY AT GOTHAM, with NEW HAVEN appearing below GOTHAM. We can only speculate that, in the Bat-universe, Yale Law School has a branch campus in Gotham City. But whatever the case, the import of the plaque is unmistakable: Batman is a Yale alumnus.

Elis in the world of popular entertainment include Rory Gilmore of Gilmore Girls, Dr. Niles Crane of Frasier, and Flash Gordon. But Batman bestrides this landscape like a colossus. An iconic superhero-detective possessed of astonishing intellectual and physical abilities, an indomitable will, and flying-mammal accoutrements intended to inspire abject fear in the toughest criminals, in recent times he has been celebrated as an ambiguous "dark knight." Forbes magazine has estimated his fortune at $6.5 billion. (He trails Scrooge McDuck, Tony Stark, and Jed Clampett on Forbes's 2010 "Fictional 15" list, but bests Thurston Howell III, Jay Gatsby, the Tooth Fairy, and—yes—Monty Burns.)

This accomplished individual has contributed his share of memorable quotations to the culture, starting in his earliest days. Detective Comics, November 1939, printed the following thoughts of Bruce Wayne: "I must have a disguise. Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible … a … a—" At this juncture, a huge bat flies in the open window. "A bat! That's it. It's an omen … I shall become a BAT!"

The Batman TV program of the 1960s helped popularize catchphrases from the comics, such as "boy wonder," "Batmobile," "Batcave," "utility belt," and "Dynamic Duo." It also took the franchise in a decidedly campy direction. The show's own signature catchphrase was the deathless "Tune in next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel." And among its most memorable tropes were the onomatopoeic words superimposed on the screen whenever a combatant in a fight scene landed a particularly good blow: Kapow! Pow! Zap! Boff! Sock! Biff! Crash! Splatt! Bam! Ooooff! Whamm! Whap! Whack! Zowie! Zamm! (Less used: Flrbbbbb! and Vronk!)

Batman himself can claim only reflected glory for the show's most significant impact on American speech: "Holy ____, Batman!"—Robin's all-purpose exclamation—took many forms. To give a very few examples: Holy Molars, Holy Contributing to the Delinquency of Minors, Holy Interplanetary Yardstick, Holy Mucilage, Holy Unrefillable Prescription, and Holy Priceless Collection of Etruscan Snoods.

Now long after the TV show, "Holy ____, Batman!" is still alive—indeed, it seems immortal. It has spread so widely that it qualifies as a "snowclone," defined thus by linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum: "a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers." Thus we have such post-Robin variants in the media as Holy Chinese Megacity, Holy Bond Yield, and Holy Wikileaks—all headlines for posts or articles that had nothing to do with Batman.

After this verbal explosion, the Batman movies of the last two decades had to be phraseologically anticlimactic. Still, there were some highlights. The 1989 Tim Burton film had Jack Nicholson's Joker: "You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?" The Dark Knight (2008) featured Heath Ledger's version of the same character asking, "Why so serious?"

Batman's seriousness clearly was instilled in him during his years as a law student at Yale (Gotham campus). The Simpsons' Crimson writing corps conceived Montgomery Burns as a slander on Yalies, but perhaps also to distract attention from their own pompous graduates, such as Major Charles Emerson Winchester III (M*A*S*H), Louis Winthorpe III (Trading Places), and the aforementioned Thurston Howell III, of Gilligan's Island. Harvard Law School's most memorable fictional alum is American Psycho's murderous Patrick Bateman. Both Bateman and Batman were played by Christian Bale, but the resemblance ends there.  

The comment period has expired.