clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Is Jean Valjean the original Batman?

New, 2 comments

An important literary examination

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Photo by Mondadori Portfolio by Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

The brooding neighborhood watch captain Batman was created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. While he has no superpowers, Batman does possess an array of impressive gadgets, extensive martial arts training, and a reputation as the “World’s Greatest Detective.”

Jean Valjean was created in 1862 by Victor Hugo in the novel Les Misérables. Valjean is an early 19th-century Frenchman attempting to reform his life after a long prison sentence. He’s the.protagonist of both the novel and the subsequent musical adaptation, which premiered in Paris in 1980.

At first blush, you may think Valjean and Batman have little in common. One uses fear and technology to fight organized crime and an entire gallery of costumed villains. The other sings a lot and mostly tries to keep off the police’s radar. (Please note: I have not read Les Misérables the novel, so I will only be discussing Valjean as depicted in the musical.)

But upon further examination, you may find that Valjean, while not a note-for-note match with Batman, is something of a proto-Batman. Consider the following indisputable points of symmetry:

BOTH HAVE A HIGHLY CAPITALIST ALTER EGO

Batman’s true identity is Bruce Wayne, orphaned billionaire and playboy. Jean Valjean reinvents himself as Monsieur Madeleine, a wealthy factory owner and mayor. Money and status places both men beyond suspicion.

Moreover, neither is entirely self-made. Wayne inherited his riches from his parents, and Valjean received seed capital from a kindly bishop who gifted him several valuable silver pieces after Valjean briefly attempted to embark upon a life of crime.

BOTH SUFFERED A FAMILY TRAGEDY

[MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD]

Batman’s parents are dead.

After leaving the opera early through a side exit, they were shot in a robbery gone wrong. Batman saw this as a child, and the unresolved trauma of this laid the foundation for his emergence as a crime fighter.

[END OF SPOILERS]

Valjean was sent to prison for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. The child never appears in the musical, which forces us to conclude that, in part due to Valjean’s failure to procure the bread, this nephew or niece died while Valjean was in police custody.

BOTH ARE EX-CONVICTS WITH A TESTY RELATIONSHIP WITH LAW ENFORCEMENT

We have already established Valjean’s record. In Batman Begins, the first entry in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Bruce Wayne winds up in a Bhutan prison. Neither spends much narrative time incarcerated, though.

After their release and return to society, both Batman and Valjean struggle with local law enforcement despite trying to fight for justice. In Valjean’s case, that struggle comes against Inspector Javert, who was previously a guard at the prison where Valjean served his time. Javert relentlessly pursues Valjean, convinced that a former thief who’s violated his parole cannot reform, despite Valjean’s numerous acts of kindness and selflessness.

That kindness extends to Javert himself. After infiltrating a student revolutionary group as a spy, Javert is exposed, captured, and handed over to Valjean to be executed. But Valjean frees his nemesis without condition, insisting he bears him no ill will.

[MORE MAJOR SPOILERS]

The idea that a criminal can do good creates such cognitive dissonance within Javert that he ends his own life by jumping into the Seine.

[END OF SPOILERS]

In most stories about Batman’s earliest crime-fighting years, he comes into conflict with Gotham City’s police and elected officials. Though they’re less theological about it than Javert, their concerns are fairly similar: how can a lawbreaker be a hero? Many of Gotham’s leaders want to thwart Batman as badly as the criminals he fights.

That tension does not end in a drowning in that Batman universe, however. The police wind up working with Batman (sometimes quietly and unofficially), believing that the good he does outweighs the extralegal nature of his actions. That partnership manifests itself in the form of the iconic Bat-Signal, which the police use to call for Batman’s aid.

(To be fair, Valjean had no cool insignia that could be put on top of a spotlight, which made the prospects of a Valjean-Javert partnership less appealing.)

BOTH ARE SUPER STRONG, EVEN WHEN THEY GET OLD

There are 121,000 Google results for “How strong is Batman?” The answer varies depending on the incarnation and medium, but the consistent answer is “real dang strong.” One internet user has deduced, based on a single comic book page, that Batman is two to five times stronger than a silverback gorilla. Even in The Dark Knight Returns, a four-issue comic released in 1986, 55-year-old Batman can still fight younger opponents without being outmatched.

One of Valjean’s defining characteristics? His strength, which Javert first notices in prison and then sees again years later when Valjean rescues a man pinned by a cart. Valjean later carries another character, Marius, through the sewers to a doctor. At this point in the musical, Valjean is probably in his fifties or sixties, but he has no problem trudging through the muck while carrying another grown man.

BOTH HAVE WARDS

There have been at least five different Robins, Batman’s younger sidekick who’s usually an orphan adopted by Bruce Wayne. This is somewhat weird, because Batman lives alone with his faithful butler, Alfred, but, again, money papers over many concerns. Batman wants a ward, Batman gets a ward.

In Les Misérables, Valjean promises Fantine, a single mother who worked in his factory before becoming a prostitute, that he will find and care for Cosette, Fantine’s daughter who’s being raised by another couple. (Fantine is dying when this promise is offered, it’s not some lunchtime conversation.) Valjean keeps that promise by paying a significant amount of money to adopt Cosette. Again, it helps to be rich.

BOTH LIVE BY A CODE, EVEN WHEN IT WORKS AGAINST THEIR SELF-INTEREST

We’ve already covered how Valjean lets Javert go, even though he knows the inspector is likely to keep hunting him down. Before that, Valjean has a chance to escape police suspicion forever, when a man who looks like him is arrested and charged with his crime of breaking parole. He cannot accept that injustice, however, and chooses to reveal his true identity in court.

Batman has a similar line: He will not kill. Sure, he will maim’ he will let someone die through other circumstances; and he has likely caused dozens, if not hundreds, of medical injuries. But under no circumstances will he take a life.

Not convinced that Jean Valjean and Batman are basically the same? Have other important Batman observations you want to share or Batman debates you’d like settled? Let us know in the comments on this Batman Friday.