In May of 1939, writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane introduced a superhero in Detective Comics #27 of a much different stripe: the Batman!
The origin of Batman starts with alienation and acceptance themes. It's the idea of a kid being orphaned by crime. Witnessing the murder of his parents while walking home from the movies, a young Bruce Wayne vows to devote his life to fighting crime.
“I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.” [Detective Comics #33]
After years of study and training, he dons a cape and cowl, secures himself an assortment of gadgets, and goes off into the night to do battle with Gotham City’s criminal element.
Batman is born. Batman is a character, which is superhero, but based in humanity. He implies a world that needs a hero.
Equal parts Sherlock Holmes, the Shadow, Dick Tracy, and Doc Savage, the Caped Crusader nevertheless emerged as a wholly unique entry in the pulp hero canon, and found his place as the perfect counterpart to Superman. Whereas the Man of Steel stands for hope and justice, the Dark Knight stands for fear and vengeance. Whereas Clark Kent was raised in rural Kansas by a family of modest means, Bruce Wayne was raised in the sprawling metropolis of Gotham by a family of extraordinary wealth. And whereas Superman has a list of spectacular powers that he gained simply in virtue of existing here on Earth, Batman is a mere man, but one who has pushed himself through rigorous training to become an expert investigator and fighter. (Having great looks and a nearly inexhaustible amount financial resources doesn’t hurt, either.)
Lots of superheroes have home cities that play an important role in making them who they are. But none play quite as central a role as Gotham City does for Batman.
“The Case of the Joker’s Crime Circus” in Batman #4 first refers to Batman’s city as “Gotham.”
Its name is borrowed from Washington Irving’s regular use of the term to refer to NYC in his 19th century satirical periodical Salmagundi. Some associate Gotham with Chicago, though. In part that’s because of Christopher Nolan’s use of the city for his Batman films, particularly The Dark Knight, but in part that’s because of Chicago’s historical connection to the mob, especially to mobster Al Capone.
It’s a bit of a mistake, though, to worry too much about what city Gotham is “really” supposed to be. As it has been developed over the decades, it’s not supposed to be any one of them. Rather, Gotham is the dark reflection of all American cities—the seedy underbelly of urbanization. It doesn’t just have crime—it’s riddled with crime. It doesn’t just have some corruption—it’s wholly corrupt. It doesn’t just have income inequality—it’s defined entirely by the haves and have-nots. (Yes, that includes billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne.)
Its architecture is dehumanizing. Its alleys are labyrinthine. Batman fits into Gotham in a way that no other superhero fits into his or her surroundings. He is a creation of the city. When its pervasive crime got so bad that it finally impacted the city’s elite with the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, Gotham spat out their son as a response: a billionaire turned vigilante who targets everyone from corrupt politicians to police on the take and fights everyone from low-end burglars to master criminals.
For their part, the people of Gotham endorse the Caped Crusader implicitly in their half-hearted attempts to bring him to justice and explicitly with their regular cries for help, showcased by good cops like Jim Gordon shining the Bat-Signal into the night sky when Batman’s services are needed.
Gotham is just part of the story of what make Batman tales so compelling, though. Fighting the mob and corrupt city officials only goes so far in keeping our interest. Batman needs adversaries with a capital ‘a’. And boy does he have them.
Batman finds himself in a seemingly never-ending struggle with some of the most creative villains in the history of comic books. The bad guys are characters so well rounded that they can exist by themselves. Penguin. Riddler. Catwoman. Bane. Poison Ivy. Scarecrow. Mad Hatter. Ra’s al Ghul. Killer Croc. Two-Face. Clayface. Hugo Strange. Man Bat. Mr. Freeze.
Batman’s villains stand-out not merely in terms of their colorful names, but in their many different agendas and methods.
The Riddler is pathologically compelled to advertise the crimes he is about to commit—in the form of a riddle. Two-Face’s activities show an obsession with duality. Tragic Mr. Freeze became a villain in his efforts to save his wife. Bane was originally bent simply on showing the world that Batman can be thoroughly beaten. And he succeeded. Half the time, Batman and Catwoman want to fight each other and the other half they want to fight together. With those two, well, let’s just say that they have a complicated relationship.
These are just a handful of his regular foes. What’s that? Am I forgetting someone?
The Joker, Batman’s singular nemesis, often tops the list of the most important supervillains of all time.
The Clown Prince of Crime
The Joker. Clown Prince of Crime. He’s Batman’s main adversary, a psychopathic nemesis who has challenged and confounded the Dark Knight since Batman #1.
Sporting a purple suit that hangs over a lanky frame, with chemically-scarred bleach-white skin, green hair and red lips that are drawn back into a permanent, ghoulish grin, he is the first among supervillains, a master criminal who has traumatized or killed several of Batman’s closest allies and repeatedly terrorized the citizens of Gotham.
The Joker is the best trickster character ever and a perfect villain for Batman. He represents the ration of triumph of irrationality.
Jerry Robinson is given much of the credit these days for creating the Joker, though controversy still surrounds the roles that Bill Finger and Bob Kane played as well. What’s agreed upon is that Conrad Veidt’s turn as Gwynplaine in the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs was an influential part of the Joker’s creation.
His first appearance in Batman #1 was also intended to be his last. The Joker shows up in the first and last stories of that book, “The Joker” and “The Joker Returns.” In the second story, the Joker tries to stab Batman with a dagger only to have the Dark Knight shove the dagger into the Joker’s heart instead. The panels wind down with the Joker apparently dead—and that’s where it was supposed to end.
Editor Whitney Ellsworth is credited with changing the game plan by insisting that the Joker stick around. The Joker goes on to show up regularly in the early Batman comics, and his near death in Batman #1 starts a trend of such incidents, setting the stage for what would become a very popular comic book trope: the death-but-not-really of villains (and heroes).
The 1940s saw the Joker many of us today are familiar with: a murderous psychopath with a dark sense of humor and a penchant for killing his victims with poison of one form or other, often causing them to die wearing a ghastly death-grin on their face.
But the Communist scare of the 1950s led to a concern that comics books were corrupting the youth, and so with the advent of the Comics Code Authority that came in the wake of that scare, Joker stories went from grim to goofy. Eventually, the character took a back seat in Batman comics.
It’s acknowledged that Cesar Romera’s turn as the Joker in the 1960s Batman television series reignited interest in the character. Ironically, although Romera’s Joker was sheer camp when the Joker returned to comic books, he was anything but.
Writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams brought the Clown Prince of Crime back to respectable homicidal form with Batman #251, “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” in 1973 and he’s remained true to that form ever since.
The Killing Joke
In Alan Moore’s controversial story Batman: The Killing Joke, the Joker brutalizes Barbara Gordon—Batgirl. He does this all in an effort to prove that if anyone has a bad enough day, then they’ll end up as crazy as he is. In typical lunatic fashion, Barbara isn’t even the Joker’s main target in making this insane point—it’s her father, Jim Gordon.
The idea found in the The Killing Joke—that the Joker’s origin in some way involves him “breaking” after something truly awful happens to him—draws upon the Joker’s first origin story, found in Detective Comics #168. There he is presented as the criminal The Red Hood, who when tussling with Batman finds himself submerged in a chemical bath that transforms him into the Clown Prince of Crime.
The Killing Joke adopts a similar backstory. And though the 1989 movie Batman gets rid of the Red Hood part, it too presents the Joker as being created by being dropped into a vat of chemicals while fighting Batman. Interestingly, The Dark Knight refuses to ever commit to an origin of the character, to great effect.
What makes the Joker such a fantastic supervillain is the relationship between him and Batman. Both clearly were traumatized—Batman by the death of his parents, the Joker by who knows what—and yet they ended up on different sides of their trauma.
A billionaire who dresses up as a bat to pummel criminals is just barely clinging to sanity, and the Joker knows it. The one thing keeping Batman from going over the edge is his code, which is that he won’t kill people, even the bad guys. It’s precisely this moral line in the sand that the Joker exploits again and again.
There’s been much debate over why Batman doesn’t just kill the Joker, but the Joker seems to know better than anyone. It’s because Batman will completely lose himself—lose his moral identity—if he kills the Clown Prince of Crime. Getting him to cross that line is the only way the Joker can beat Batman, and happily, so far he’s failed.
The effectiveness of the Joker’s supervillainy comes with him truly being insane. He will kill dozens of people just to get a laugh; he will terrorize Barbara Gordon just to prove a point to her dad. People aren’t people to the Joker, they’re props, no different than set pieces on a stage. This is what it is to be psychotic.
And if there’s a pathos to the Joker—and there is—it’s that he doesn’t ever seem to understand that the rest of the world isn’t like him. It doesn’t just take one bad day to drive people over the edge. We suffer terrible days and still push on. The Joker can’t understand that he never was simply an ordinary person pushed too far. He’s ill and always had been.
A Bizarre Love Triangle
Having acknowledged all of this, it’s strange to think of the Joker as ever being in a romantic relationship, and yet one of the more interesting developments of the character in the past several decades has been the introduction of Harley Quinn.
Created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for Batman: The Animated Series, Dr. Harleen Quinzel was a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum who had the Joker has one of her patients. Trying to study him eventually drove her mad and turned her into to his ongoing accomplice.
Controversy surrounds the romance between Harley and “Mr. J”, or “Puddin.” It is portrayed as a kind of twisted love triangle where she is obsessed with the Joker and the Joker is obsessed with Batman. But the character has gained in popularity and her appearance in Suicide Squad comics offers an opportunity for her to break away from the severe dysfunctional relationship she has with the Joker to come a bit more into her own.
Batman’s Tools of the Trade
Often in battling these foes, Batman relies not just on deduction or brute force, but on an arsenal of spectacular gadgetry.
One of the most important weapons that Batman uses is his Batarang, which, among other things, can disarm opponents or knock them unconscious. They first appeared when he was fighting The Monk in Detective Comics #31.
The earliest depictions of Batman in Detective Comics #27 show him with his yellow utility belt, but it wasn’t until a few issues later, with “The Batman Meets Doctor Death” in Detective Comics #39, where we see him use the belt as a utility belt—placing choking gas pellets in it. Since those early panels Batman’s utility belt has gone on to house all sorts of nifty items, from the sublime, like a piece of kryptonite—“just in case”—to the ridiculous, like shark repellent spray.
Of course, Batman’s utility belt is small potatoes when compared to the array of machines he uses in his war against crime, some of which are stored in his superhero hideout beneath Wayne Manor--the Batcave!
Over the years Batman has deployed the expected vehicles—helicopters, planes, motorcycles—and some awfully unusual ones, like a rocket ship (Batman has spaceship, the Bat-Rocket: see Superman/Batman #64).
Hands-down, though, Batman’s most famous vehicle is, well… “To the Batmobile! Let’s go. Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed.” (Batman: The TV Series)
The Batmobile shows up at the very start of things in Detective Comics #27. It was just a red sedan then, and wasn’t even referred to as “the Batmobile” until “The Secret Cavern” in Detective Comics #48. “The Riddle of the Missing Card” in Batman #5 presented the first version of the car with a sleek, dark-blue paint-job and looming bat face on the front.
It’s gone through a variety of changes ever since, morphing from the fast and lean to the bulky and deadly-- in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, it’s basically a tank.
Batman has a much broader sense of family than Superman.
As solitary a figure as Batman may seem to be, his war against criminals has almost always been conducted with the help of allies. Among the many who have aided him over the years, the two who stand out the most are his sidekick, Robin, the Boy Wonder, and his loyal friend and confident, Alfred.
Dick Grayson, the first Robin, shows up early on in Batman stories, appearing for the first time in Detective Comics #38. A mere boy and the youngest member of his mother and father’s acrobatic act, the Flying Graysons, Dick is orphaned when mobsters sabotage his parents’ trapeze performance because the circus manager, Mr. Haly, wouldn’t buy into their protection racket.
He becomes the legal ward of Bruce Wayne, who trains him to fight alongside Batman as Robin, the Boy Wonder. Robin is the first kid sidekick. Young sidekicks became a popular addition to early superhero stories in an effort to increase sales. The idea was that more kids would gobble comic books up if they saw someone their own age as main characters in the adventures. And the huge increase in comic book consumption that resulted seemed to bear this idea out.
Robin remains the most recognized superhero sidekick. But he hasn’t always been Dick Grayson. He hasn’t always even been a boy. Dick Grayson eventually left Robin behind to become Nightwing.
Other Robins include Jason Todd, who was murdered at the hands of the Joker, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown (who also spends some time as Batgirl) and more recently, Damian Wayne—Bruce Wayne’s son.
Yes, Batman is a father.
And though Bruce Wayne lost his own father when he was young, Alfred Pennyworth, ostensibly his butler but really his friend, ally, and father-figure, has remained a part of the Dark Knight’s stories since his first appearance in Batman #16 with the story “Here Comes Alfred.” His role in Batman’s life differs, though, depending on whether we’re pre-or-post Crisis on Infinite Earths, a mid-80s storyline that in part was aimed at addressing continuity issues in the DC Universe.
In Batman #16, Alfred comes into lives of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson only after they’re a superhero crime-fighting team and accidentally learns their secret after they hire him as their valet. But he proves a worthy ally over the years until he seemingly dies saving their lives only to be recreated by a mad scientist Brandon Crawford as the villain The Outsider.
Post-crisis Alfred is similar to the character seen in the Batman film franchises—a father figure who was the legal guardian of Bruce Wayne after his parents died. In the Christopher Nolan films, he not only helps Bruce to become Batman, but he also provides the moral voice needed at times to help him deal with the consequences of his actions as Gotham City’s watchful guardian.
"Honorable mention” here should go to stalwart Batman ally Jim Gordon, the upstanding cop that Batman has worked with throughout his many years fighting crime in Gotham. Gordon rose in the ranks from a beat cop to detective, lieutenant, and eventually, commissioner of the police, and has proven time and again to be invaluable to the Dark Knight’s efforts.
Batman was a hugely popular character right out the gate in 1939 and has been going strong ever since. Although strictly-speaking lacking in superpowers, his highly-honed skills and enormous wealth render him super-heroic, and any fan of the Justice League of America will tell you that he can more than handle his own with the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern.