`I'm no cartoon. I'm me. I'm flesh and blood'

Meet the real Bruce Wayne, the man behind the Batman comics. He suffered, the myth prospered. John Lyttle met him on the eve of the opening of `Batman Forever'

Dick Grayson opens the door to the library and says, "Bruce will be down in a minute." Sunlight just about makes it through unwashed windows at the end of the gloomy room. There is just enough illumination to see the dust waltzing in the air ... but not enough to identify the secret panel that slides open to reveal the Bat Pole.

I'm disappointed. Which is silly. I know that the Bat Pole was sold at auction in 1986, when Bruce Wayne was desperately amassing funds to fight off Donald Trump's hostile takeover of Wayne Industries.

The pole fetched $70,000, more than twice the Sotheby's reserve price. And Wayne Industries was absorbed into the Trump empire three days after the sale.

Twenty-four hours later, Bruce Wayne entered the Betty Ford Clinic: alcoholism. Elizabeth Taylor came to visit,

Dick grimaces. "Sorry. I meant to clean up. Since Alfred ..." I nod sympathetically. Dick shrugs. "We don't have a butler any more." I nod again. Dick sighs. "Wayne Mansion isn't what it used to be."

Indeed. The overgrown drive, the untended flower beds, the smell of rising damp. It's all a bit Sunset Boulevard.

Wayne Mansion has witnessed better days. So has Dick Grayson. Once he was a Boy Wonder, as famous for his physique as for his crimefighting. Like the Robin he took his alias from, he looked good in tights. Now in his late forties, he is balding, bespectacled, out of condition. Nothing special.

"Am I interrupting?"

I jump. Bruce Wayne remains a master of stealth. He has slipped into the room undetected; an effective party trick.

He is tiny. Bruce Wayne, the Caped Crusader, is small potatoes - five foot four inches, maybe five, tops.

He notices my stare. His jaw - it really is square - tenses, relaxes. "That," Bruce Wayne says meaningfully, "is the one thing Tim Burton got right when he cast Michael Keaton in Batman. Keaton was the right height - the height of nonsense." And then he does something no screen Batman has ever done - he laughs. Dick leans over and whispers: "The therapist said he should work on his sense of humour."

Very wise. Batman Forever, the third of Warner Brothers' Batflicks, opens in the States tonight and the media is hounding Bruce Wayne - again. He is good copy: the man whose career was taken up as a comic book; but the comic book, and the other semi-fictional representations - a Saturday morning movie serial, the television show, the doom-laden graphic novels, the Burton Hollywood Gothic - finally consumed the hero, and nobody noticed, except the hero himself ... till there came a time when the centre wouldn't hold and the man behind the mask fell from grace, leaving the legend to move on without him.

You could blame Post-Modernism. Bruce Wayne blames himself - and Bob Kane. Kane says he "created" Batman back in 1939 for DC comics. "Bob was my friend," Wayne says. "I shared my secrets with him. All of them. How my parents were murdered. Why I became Batman. How I met Dick ... well, maybe I didn't tell the entire truth there."

Dick Grayson stops on his way out: "It was at a gay bar called The Arkham Asylum. It was Rubber Night. You were the handsomest man in the room." He gives Wayne a look. "You're still the handsomest man in the room." It's true: Bruce Wayne hasn't aged. No paunch. No stoop. No wrinkles. As eerily unblemished as ... a drawing, actually. No wonder Catwoman wouldn't take a negative for an answer. No wonder she was always trying to kill Robin.

Dick makes his exit.

Bruce Wayne gazes at the door long after his partner is gone. "Bob Kane took my life and turned it into a cartoon," he says. "I'm not a cartoon. I'm me. I'm flesh and blood."

If a watching world couldn't quite sort out the confusion between Batman proper and Batman on paper, imagine how Wayne felt. Guilty about his homosexuality - Wayne jokes that he's from "the twilight generation" - Kane's pseudo-fabrication provided not merely good PR for his vigilante crusade but an escape from himself.

It cost: as the decades passed he found himself trapped inside the public persona. "Well, I'm not naturally taciturn," Wayne says. "I'm quite chatty. But Batman was expected to be a man of few words. John Wayne rather than Bruce Wayne. So I shut up. Then I'd come home and be Mr Moody. Dick put up with a lot. My therapist calls it `hyper-masculinity'. The Bat Pole, the Batmobile, the Bat Plane - classic case of overcompensation."

What a mess. A straight Batman with a secret life, it seems, and a gay Batman with a secret life, with the latter trying to live up to the former. Or, in one instance, live down. Wayne still recalls the Sixties TV series with a shudder. Its depiction of Batman and Robin as Camp Crusaders nearly let the bat out of the bag, enraging purists, yet, in retrospect, Wayne concedes, came closest to the "truth".

"I wasn't ready to be the first `out' superhero," Wayne says sheepishly. But he never would be ready - the contradictions kept him spinning: not just the gay thing, but not knowing if he'd actually fought and defeated, say, Poison Ivy, last month or whether DC Comics had decided he had. Their Batman always had to win. Often the real Batman didn't: "God, do you know how often the Riddler got off? I wish I had his lawyers." But Bruce Wayne kept dancing as fast as he could. "When they changed the Batman costume - which they did, repeatedly - I had to change my outfit. It wasn't a matter of believing my own publicity - I was my own publicity."

It fell apart in 1986. America's ever rising crime rate kept Batman busy and Bruce Wayne away from Wayne Industries. Trump came calling. Wayne spent the bulk of his multi-million dollar fortune keeping him at bay. He failed. Dick Grayson told him he was retiring as Robin. Wayne was already hitting the bottle: "My utility belt was like a cocktail cabinet." When he crashed the Batmobile, the Gotham police booked him for drunken driving. The tabloids moved in for the kill. So did the DC graphic artist Frank Miller; Wayne's despair birthed the Dark Knight - Batman as a middle-aged boozy loser.

It hurt, but he was used to his privacy being raided. He thought. "Alfred's betrayal was the worst," Bruce Wayne whispers. Alfred's account of Batman and Robin's relationship, provided to the National Enquirer, a high-circulation scandal sheet, caused a publicity firestorm. A society that worshipped the Dynamic Duo now turned on its icons. If Wayne felt betrayed, it cut both ways.

Now the world knew about the frantic cover-up (Batman nearly married the photographer Vicki Vale), about the depressions, the deceit. Some were outraged, some were nonplussed. Why had he pretended for so long? Wayne shrugs. "I'm an orphan. The comic books suggested that meant I was automatically isolated from society. Actually, it makes you crave acceptance. I wanted to be accepted."

1989 was the final straw. Wayne knew that Burton's movie was near. Wayne was content now - out of the limelight, attending AA, raising Aids funds. He went to court to have the movie stopped.

No such luck. "The judge said I was in the public domain. Hell, I knew that - that's why I wasn't getting any financial action. Jack Nicholson walked away with $30m for playing that psychopath, the Joker - obscene. The Joker's a criminal. I know, he says he's reformed, that he's a harmless stand-up comic, but we'll see.

"Did you know they paid the Joker to use his likeness? $500,000. He wasn't in the public domain, apparently. They needed his permission, but never, not once, mine."

Wayne says that Alfred finally did him a favour, forced him to face himself. What he can't understand, though, is how the real Batman died overnight, while the "unreal" Batman continued, bigger than before: "Was it because he was everything I wasn't? And not able to answer back? Christ, he was even allowed to have flaws. Not me. What's it about? Do you know?"

I don't.

He glances out the library window. Darkness has fallen. Suddenly, there in the blackness ... the Bat Signal. Bruce Wayne almost leaps from his chair. Then he slumps back: "It's the Batman Forever premiere tonight. It's a ... gimmick." He turns away. "Shouldn't you be going?" he asks.

I look up at the Bat Signal. "No," I answer. "Shouldn't you?"

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