“I am vengeance. I am the night. I am Batman!”
— Batman, the Animated Series (1992)
Batman has been haunting the nights of Gotham City for eighty years. Treated as a creature of urban myth, he is best when barely seen, more legend than man, more fiction than fable; when he does what he does best, stringing together clues no normal man can see, fighting against foes who mere presence turns lesser men’s bowels to water, when he’s standing against a god poised to destroy our world, this is when we remember why the world’s best known hero is just a man — in a cape.
“Villains are a superstitious and cowardly lot.”
These words defined the core of the Batman mythos. During the day, Bruce Wayne, lives the life of a millionaire playboy. He’s a bored philanthropist and disinterested corporate magnate. Heir to a vast fortune built by his family, Bruce Wayne’s life would be perfect, except for the tragedy which marred his idyllic existence, the murder of his parents one evening on a family outing.
Unable to cope with the loss, Bruce Wayne was mentored and supported by his faithful family butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Visited by the police detective assigned to the murder from time to time to report on a lack of leads made in the case. Bruce Wayne could have gone mad with grief.
Perhaps he did. Unable to escape his rage, he embraced it. He harnessed it. It drove him to become stronger, better, smarter than he ever thought he could be. He realized Gotham was too corrupt. It would never yield its secrets. Thus he would have to become more than a man. He would need to strike terror into the hearts of criminals until he taught them there were more terrible things in the night than them.
The night belonged to the Bat.
“Always be yourself. But if you can’t be yourself, always be Batman.”
Batman is a peculiar character. His goal was like most heroes of myth, he sought vengeance and in the early stories, he was relentless. Cruel. Dispassionate. He might let you fall into a vat of acid. He reasoned: you brought that fate on yourself. At one time, he even used guns …
When he first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, he was just one of an entire issue of detectives, each with their unique methods of problem solving, each challenging one aspect of society’s many ills of the period. Batman’s methods weren’t all that different then. He was one part swashbuckler, one part mystery man, and one part two-fisted detective.
Unlike many of those legendary characters, Batman did what they could not. He evolved. He remained relevant. He transformed, as a character, becoming whatever he needed to be and yet maintained an air of dignity and mystery even when he was an icon of humor in the 1960s, when he was portrayed, tongue-in-cheek with Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin, caped crusaders.
As a character, Batman has been fortunate to have such creative writers. His creators, Bob Kane and Bill Fingers, managed to reinvent the theatricality of Zorro, the intelligence of Sherlock Holmes and the intensity of the Shadow. But unlike those icons, Batman would change to suit the time periods, giving up guns, adopting non-lethal methods, picking up martial arts, playing up the fear motif, becoming a creature of the night. Batman remains relevant because readers connect to him; we connect to his loss and our empathy with wanting to do something about it.
During the Golden Age of Comics, Batman appearance in Detective was consider a breakout event and after Superman’s began his meteoric climb, Batman got his own comic just a few months later in Batman #1, in 1940.
His origin took two pages. These two pages defined what would become the core of his legend. No writer has ever altered this pivotal scene. The legend has been retold, expanded, expounded upon, revised, altered (but never too much). No matter what medium Batman enters, he remains a tortured individual who, instead of succumbing to his suffering, transcends it.
“You can’t kill Batman. Batman is an ideal. You can slow him down, you can break his back. You can lose him in time, but you can never stop Batman. The genie is out of the bottle, someone will take his place.”
Why Batman Still Works
Batman seeks to redress injustice in a world unconcerned with the individual, a world bent on destroying autonomy and reducing us all to shadows in the background of power and control. Bruce Wayne refutes that state. He stands above it, refusing to turn his back, and refusing to descend to the level of the madmen and women who control society.
While Batman may fight on the street, Bruce Wayne uses his vast wealth to challenge the status quo, to make the world a better place where he can. When money, rules and laws fail because there are men who place themselves above the social norms, he becomes the Bat, perfectly trained to operate in their world because he was trained there.
Bruce Wayne learned his techniques for fighting crime from criminals. He learned what he could from legitimate agencies, and slowly as they could teach him less and less, he would take to traveling the world, immersing himself in fight clubs, criminal enterprises, seeking the hidden masters of martial arts and detection around the world. In recent years, writers have taken to writing about this period, as fertile ground to explain and expand on the psychology of Bruce Wayne, his motivations, his rationales, the source of his choices and behaviors which led him to become the Bat.
Strangely enough, he is seen often seen to be as damaged as the people he fights. Depending on the author, sometimes Batman is thought to be as damaged as his rogues. He has been considered the cause of the insanity of Gotham. As he fights crime, it is said he begets new crime, creating power vacuums which must be filled. Other writers, however, don’t blame Batman, they blame a shadow government which controls the wealth of Gotham and perpetuates many of these criminals as a cover for their enterprises.
This has been the secret of Batman’s success over the decades. His writers are creative and willing to expand his mythos, more importantly it’s the acknowledgement of the humanity which Bruce Wayne, when properly written, brings to the struggle of good versus evil. Most important, they understand the dynamics of the character, his constant struggle with the dynamics of what he is.
He is still essentially Human. Despite his technology, he can still be harmed. He can still know fatigue. He still experiences doubt. Though you would never hear him admit this to almost anyone except his very unique family. For Batman, there is still a struggle. One where people are lost. One, where if he makes a single mistake, fails to see a possibility, could cost him everything.
This is the secret weakness of Batman. He blames himself for what happened to his parents. It was his desire to see Zorro that night which had his parents in Crime Alley. He blames himself he wasn’t strong enough to do more. Irrationally, he believes he failed his parents and the driving force in his life is now he can’t allow himself to fail.
Why hasn’t Batman descended into madness?
He keeps busy. While he pretends to be a disinterested philanthropist, he does use his considerable wealth and connections to do as much as he can to help people in Gotham as Bruce Wayne. He funds clinics, he builds orphanages, he opens schools, he supports businesses. Each of these efforts he believes will help to make Gotham’s future brighter.
When he is not working during the day, at night he trains his family of adventurers. This is why Batman stays sane. He focuses his efforts into his ersatz family, his father figure, Alfred Pennyworth, his sons, Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Timothy Drake and Damien Wayne. He begrudgingly welcomes an extended family of crime fighters, Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, his cousin, Katherine Kane as Batwoman, Cassandra Cain as Orphan, Stephanie Brown as the Spoiler, Duke Thomas as the Signal and even Basil Karlo, better known as Clayface.
He says he is training them to be the legacy of Gotham, should something happen to him. Alfred says, it’s because he’s lonely and this may be a close to a family as a night-dwelling, anti-social, bat-themed hero can get.
I think Alfred is right.
Batman changes, by bringing new players into the game, people who remind him how to pull back from his own inner darkness, his young superheroes-in-training, who bring to the struggle their own fears, their own frustrations and each reflecting a different part of the Shadow of the Bat; even while they save Bruce Wayne, he hones them into weapons in his struggle to save Gotham.
Dick Grayson, the youthful ward of Bruce Wayne, is all that Batman can be — without the self-torture. Smart, self-assured, capable and well-adjusted, Dick Grayson would grow from the wise-cracking Robin, the Boy Wonder, to an identity forged in rebellion, Nightwing. Will he become Batman? Maybe. But there are a few others who might also be training for the role.
Jason Todd, street urchin, thief, high-strung, and independent, Todd’s nature would lead him to his doom at the hands of the Joker. Only the intervention of a Lazarus Pit would change his fate. But Jason was forever changed by his death. He would forgo the non-lethal tools of his mentor, and embrace the fight fully, sometimes coming in conflict with the man who made him what he was. Once Robin, he now wears the name “The Red Hood” and he inspires his own brand of terror now.
Timothy Drake, by far the smartest of the Robins, he deduced the identity of the Batman and would go on to become a detective the equal of his mentor. But Drake was so much more. A technological genius, Drake would design new gear, new ideas and inspire the technology of the Batcave in ways unconsidered by Bruce Wayne. Drake would eventually strike out on his own and become the Red Robin before assuming his newest identity, Drake.
A newcomer to the field, Duke Thomas is being trained to support Batman as a daytime operative named The Signal. He’s been told by Batman: “I’m not training you to be Robin. I’m trying something new.”
Last and certainly not least is the Son of the Bat himself, Damien Wayne. Genetically related to Bruce Wayne and created by Talia, daughter of the Demon, R’as Al Ghul, Damien was raised to be a weapon, a counter to the Batman when he reached adulthood. No plan survives engagement with the enemy. Bruce would turn young Damien and for a time, they would fight as Batman and Robin until Damien’s untimely death. And revival.
Batman’s legacy isn’t just his young wards but the heroes he inspires. His cousin, Katherine Kane would fancy herself as capable as Batman and over the decades would go from dilettante adventurer to serving as a soldier before donning her own mantle, becoming Batwoman. She fancies herself an independent contractor.
As for Batgirl, there have been two of them. The first was the daughter of Commissioner Gordon, hacker extraordinaire, a genius in her own right and for a time after being crippled by the Joker, she took on a new identity as Oracle, information broker to the Justice League.
While Barbara was Oracle, another young woman, raised by an assassin, raised without language and weaned purely on violence as expression, would wear the mantle of Batgirl, briefly. Despite her economy of language, there is no more dangerous fighter in the Bat Family, and even Batman admits this. Now as Orphan she lends her considerable talents to the defense of Gotham under the Shadow of the Bat.
There are many others who became part of the legend of Batman, good and bad. The history of Batman would not be complete without acknowledging those rogues for whom Batman’s struggle would be meaningless.
Joker, Riddler, Penguin – while classic villains to conjure by, they have also evolved over the decades, creating new ways to bedevil the Bat and have inspired their own copycats who all want their day in the sun. Ironically, a number of these villains were meant to be one-shots who were so popular they returned again and again. The Joker was one of these single-use villains who turns out to be Batman’s signature foe, a genius in his own mad way, he is the counter to the cold and calculating mind that is Batman. A master of chaos, the Joker is one of the most feared of Batman’s rogues gallery.
Other rogues, such as Clayface, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, and Harley Quinn, waffle back and forth between evil and less evil, depending on whether a writer feels something for the characters. Others stay comfortably themselves relishing their capacity for mayhem, such as Bane, Prometheus, Killer Crock, Black Mask, Victor Zsasz, and Hugo Strange, who all remain inscrutably, distinctively, and unapologetically evil. A few do their best to increase the threat level of their game. Calendar Man, Clock King and Kite Man keep hope alive that they too will rise to be a true challenger one day.
A unique and long time element of Batman’s rogues gallery, Selena Kyle, better known as Catwoman has managed to skirt the border of good and evil long enough that she is now a partner to Batman and a lover to Bruce Wayne. For a time, she was even a member of the Justice League. In recent years, the Bat and the Cat even considered marriage. It hasn’t happened. Yet.
80 years is a long time to be a comic crime fighter. Only a few other heroes from the Golden Age of Heroes exist in comics today. Even fewer lead their own titles and have done so for decades. Detective Comics is now up to issue 1011!
Batman Day Around the World
Today, we are going to celebrate this by creating real Bat-signals in the skies over major cities, which will hopefully have appropriately overcast skies. If they don’t, nearby skyscrapers will probably have to do. Starting in Melbourne, Australia, the Batsignal will cross the globe. These cities will include Gotham City, er … New York, Paris, Barcelona, London, Montreal, Tokyo and Berlin and ending in Los Angeles at 8:00 PM local time in Batman’s honor. There will be fitness events, specialty gatherings and even bookstores will get in on the action offering Batman Story Times at Barnes and Noble.
Batman has been seen in every medium imaginable: leaping from the pages of comics to television where Adam West charmed us with a less dark, more humorous Batman and Robin.
He would later leap to the movie screen again and again, sometimes it would be amazing, other times quite awful as directors struggled to find which Batman they wanted to portray. Nolan’s Batman proved to be quite a hit and is considered legendary thanks to Heath Ledger’s iconic and yet tragic depiction of the Joker.
Speaking of the Joker, DC decided the Clown Prince of Crime needed his own story and his own movie. Joaquin Phoenix will be playing the role in the 2019 release of Joker. Don’t expect to see Batman there, but we are told this story will be compelling enough for us to care about one of the greatest enemies Batman has ever faced.
But despite this landmark villainous affair, the Joker will still have to wait for his own day, because Batman is all anyone can talk about right now. Especially if you talk about the Batman Who Laughs, a shadowy murderous Batman from a parallel Multiverse, who in his madness destroyed his world. Now he’s come to share his brand of laughter with Bruce Wayne. That’s a darker conversation for another day.
Happy Batman Day, Citizens!
Thaddeus Howze is an award-winning writer, editor, podcaster and activist creating speculative fiction, scientific, political and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He has published two books, ‘Hayward’s Reach’ (2011), a collection of short stories and ‘Broken Glass’ (2013) an urban fantasy novella starring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.