This item was originally published on January 5th, 2010 at Fast Company.
In my last blog, I looked at how Batman is known globally in comics. With plans in the current DC storyline to have Batman Inc. go worldwide, I thought we’d see if this is really feasible–that is, do bats have the same connotations around the world as they do in the U.S.? And if the bat isn’t the right symbol in, say, China, what animal might serve?
Batman’s costume incorporates the imagery of a bat in order to frighten criminals. While brooding in his study over how to be a more effective crime fighter, Bruce Wayne saw a bat come through his window. Seeing that “criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot,” he adopted the persona of a bat in order to conceal his identity and strike fear into his adversaries. (This origin story is circa 1939, in Detective Comics.)
In Western culture, bats are unfortunately associated with darkness and evil and scary monsters like Dracula, which is too bad, because bats are totally awesome and everyone should have a bat house in their backyard. (Hate mosquitoes? Love bats.) They are undoubtedly nocturnal, which fits well with Batman’s preferred MO, but I’m not so sure that even cowardly criminals will be scared by a guy in gray tights and a cape. Sticking with DC, we can see that lots of other superheroes chose animal motifs for their costumes: Hawkman, Black Canary, Robin, Raven, Catwoman, and of course Beast Boy, who can transmute into any animal.
But none of these are particularly scary. If you really wanted to strike fear into your adversaries, pick something that people actually freak out over: Spiders (oops, taken), sharks, snakes, bees, or jellyfish. (Box jellyfish poison can kill you in 4 minutes.) Admittedly, JellyFish Man would be tough to pull off. In terms of deadliest animals, mosquitoes top the list, but that costume would suck. Therefore, in the spirit of made-up superheroes, I nominate a made-up monster, the Jersey Devil. Seriously: Jersey Devil Man would be the most terrifying thing you could encounter in the streets of Gotham.
Speaking of devils, I think the Tasmanian Devil might be a much better choice for a Batman-type hero in Australian, NZ, and Tasmania, especially since Australian Aborigines believe each bat contains the life force of a human, and to kill a bat will cause the death of the one whose life force it contains. Let’s look at a few more cultures:
- Chinese: The word for bat is a homophone of the word for luck, fu, so the bat is a symbol of happiness, good luck, long life, wealth, and peace. The ancient Chinese said the bat hung upside down because of its unusually heavy brains.
- Egyptian: Bat’s heads were used as protective amulets.
- Macedonian: Bats’ bones were worn for good luck.
- Mayan: The number 5. The Maya called the bat the destroyer of life and said it was the ruler of fire since it is an ‘eater’ of light. To reach the Land of Death one must pass through the House of the Bat.
- Native American: Life, water, rebirth, and fertility. In many Native American tribes bats were and are known as the bringers of rain. The trickster in some Plains and Southwestern tribes.
- Polish: Happiness and long life.
- Samoan: The war god, Sepi Malosi, will appear in the form of a bat to lead warriors into battle if he believes they will be successful and if he thinks his warriors will lose the fight, he flies towards warning them to turn back.
So, on the whole, bats are (as I said earlier) totally awesome. Here are a few alternatives.
- Australian: Aside from Tasmanian Devil Man, there could be Dingo Man (they eat babies) or Goanna Man.
- China: Owl Man. Owls were seen as birds of ill-omen.
Mayan: Owls were symbols of death and destruction, so Owl Man could work well in South America too.
- India: The god Shiva is always associated with a cobra. Shiva wears a snake coiled around his upper arms and neck, symbolizing the power he has over the most deadly of creatures. How about Krait Man? A krait is an immensely poisonous snake that can get up to 7 feet long. Plus it sounds really cool.
- Africa: While it’s never a good idea to generalize to an entire ginormous continent, it’s a fact that hippos kill more humans in Africa than any other large animal. Hippo Man: deadly on water and land.
- Indonesia: The Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis), is the largest living lizard on
the planet with its roots going all the way back to the dinosaurs. Because of their large size and fierce personalities, Komodo Dragons are surrounded by myth and legend in Indonesia. Komodo Dragon Man!
- Russia: My favorite. In the myths and legends of Eastern Europe, the hedgehog enjoys considerable respect because of its amazing wisdom. Tell me this doesn’t sound like Batman: “(Those) who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel–a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance.” (Isaiah Berlin, in his essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox“)
Yes! Hedgehog Man!