We all know the story: a night out ends in tragedy for the Waynes, Gotham’s most prominent family. After a night out in the movies, Thomas and Martha Wayne are murdered, making an orphan out of young Bruce. Growing up under the care of his butler Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce travels the world and returns determined to prevent more children orphaned due to crime. He takes on the form of a bat, believing that criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot. And thus, the Batman was born.
But The Dark Knight has an even more mysterious origin, one involving uncredited creators, ghost artists, and a morality scare that resulted in one of Batman’s most enduring character traits. Batman’s Secret Origin is fascinating and contains enough twists and turns to be worthy of inclusion in any comic.
Bill Finger – The Unsung Hero
Bob Kane is known as the creator of Batman, and it’s a detail that’s hard to miss – literally every appearance of Batman in the comics, TV shows, movies, and in games like the incredibly popular Arkham Trilogy, he is credited as the Caped Crusader’s creator in every single one of them.
However, while the idea of Batman was indeed conceptualized by Kane, his initial draft was immediately forgotten. He drew a character sporting blonde hair, in a red suit, without gloves, wearing a domino mask, with two wings jutting from his back. This “Bat-Man” was far from the iconic hero we know and love today.
Bob Kane turned to his friend Bill Finger, who redesigned Batman, giving him the iconic cowl, changing the wings into a cape, giving him gloves, changing the colors of the suit. He even created Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne. He wrote a lot of the early stories as well, developing a big part of the mythos surrounding the character.
So why is Bob Kane credited as the sole creator of Batman? When he sold the ownership of Batman to National Comics (which would later be known as DC Comics), part of the deal was to give him a mandatory byline on all comics and adaptations. He would go on to have Batman comics published under his name, with numerous uncredited ghost writers and artists developing many of the early stories that built the Batman canon. He spent decades contesting Bill Finger’s claims, only acknowledging him in 1989, long after the latter’s death.
Today, many comic book creators, historians, and fans agree that Bill Finger’s many contributions make him the co-creator of Batman. Bill Finger was finally officially credited by DC Comics as Batman’s co-creator in 2015.
Batman’s One Rule
Batman debuted in 1939’s Detective Comics #27, in a story called “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” written by Bill Finger and drawn by Bob Kane. We see many of the basic elements that made the Dark Knight who he was – this was the first appearance of Commissioner Gordon, Wayne Manor, the Utility Belt, and the revelation that the “Bat-Man” was actually socialite Bruce Wayne.
However, this Batman was still different from his modern incarnation in one important aspect: he murders his enemies. In his very first appearance, he punches a criminal into a vat of acid, showing very little remorse for the murder.
In fact, the earliest Batman stories has him using guns and other implements to lethal effect. He used guns to shoot criminals (and in one instance, a vampire), broke a giant’s neck with a rope, and more.
This changed a year later in Batman #4 where it was explicitly noted that “the Batman never carries or kills with a gun!” This change in Batman’s personality was done presumably in response to growing concerns over comic books’ effect on young minds, and public outcry over gun violence.
In continuity though, the explanation was simple – Bruce Wayne lost his parents to a mugger in the streets. This random act of gun violence basically ripped this young boy’s life apart, and he now sees them as the weapon of the enemy, thus forming an almost-pathological aversion to guns.
The Many Incarnations of Robin, The Boy Wonder
Debuting in Detective Comics #38, Dick Grayson was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. He was a circus acrobat whose parents were murdered. Bruce Wayne takes on Grayson as his ward and offers him the chance to avenge his parents. He takes on the identity of Robin, the Boy Wonder, and the Dynamic Duo was born.
Dick Grayson wasn’t the only Robin, however. After years of working together, he and Batman had a falling out and he took on the identity of Nightwing. He led multiple incarnations of the Teen Titans and has built healthy relationships with the superhero community. He has stepped out of the shadow of being a sidekick and is a hero in his own right.
A wayward teen named Jason Todd took up the mantle of Robin after Dick became Nightwing. This incarnation was hot-tempered and impulsive, and was generally disliked by the purist subset of the fandom. In 1988, a mere five years after his debut, he was promptly murdered by the Joker after DC ran a phone poll asking their readers to decide his fate. It is said that one fan who hated Jason Todd so much automated calls voting for his death, although DC has never verified this story. He returned from the dead two decades later, and is now operating in Gotham as the Red Hood.
Jason was then succeeded by Tim Drake as Robin. He remains a lot of fans’ favorite incarnation of the character due to his pragmatic but optimistic nature. He was able to form a deep bond with both Batman and Dick Grayson. It is said that his detective skills rival that of Batman himself, and is the only other person whom Ra’s Al Ghul calls “Detective.”
The current Batman is Damian Wayne, son of Batman and Talia al Ghul. He also is the grandson of Ra’s Al Ghul, and this heritage has led to Damian trying to keep his violent impulses in check, as he believes father’s crusade is a better one to take compared to his maternal family’s side.
Do the Batusi!
In 1966, Batman would break out of comics with the eponymous TV show. Although this wasn’t the first time Batman appeared in a live-action adaptation – there were two black-and-white serials from the 40’s – but the show, starring Adam West, was a huge hit, much to the chagrin of fans.
This Batman leaned heavily into the absurd side of the character by being as campy as possible. Villains giggled like schoolchildren at every turn, scheming in their elaborate lairs, protected by costumed henchmen. Batman joins in the fun, prefacing every single gadget with “Bat-,” like the “Shark Repellent Bat-Spray,” punctuating every punch and kick with sound effects like in the comics, and by dancing the infamous Batusi.
The show was not without significant contributions to Batman’s canon, though. It reworked an obscure villain named Mr. Zero to Mr. Freeze, who would be a popular, tragic character decades later. It also introduced Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter who takes up the identity of Batgirl, who remains a very popular character to this day.
Doubling Down on the Darkness
Fans saw Adam West’s Batman as an affront to the character, completely abandoning his dark roots. The comics did not stray far from said roots, but fears of Batman turning into West-esque camp persisted for years.
Those who longed for a more mature take on Batman got their wish when Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was published. Featuring an older Batman in an alternate future, TDKR was violent and tackled the psychological, moral, and political implications of vigilante superheroism. It also featured an amazing fight between Batman and Superman that the Dark Knight decisively won.
Alongside TDKR, DC rebooted their entire continuity with Crisis on Infinite Earths. This gave DC an opportunity to rewrite Batman’s beginnings, and they again turned to Frank Miller to pen Batman: Year One in 1987. This time we have a grounded and realistic take on Batman as he forges an alliance with a young James Gordon to fight the mobsters who have overrun Gotham City.
This rush to make Batman grim and gritty was not all good, however. 1988’s The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore, featured the Joker crippling Barbara Gordon, stripping her, and taking photos of her naked and broken body. It was a level of violence towards women that only hinted at the onslaught of women in refrigerator cliches in the 90’s.
Batman himself did not survive the 90’s unscathed. In Knightfall, he finally meets his match in Bane, who wears him out with a prison break from Arkham. Mentally and physically exhausted, Bane confronts Batman in the Batcave, where he breaks Batman’s back and leaves him paraplegic.
Yes, you read that right. Bruce Wayne was paralyzed from the waist down, spelling the end of his career as Batman. But here’s the thing: Gotham always needs a Batman. Bruce needed to pick a successor fast. You’d think he’d choose the young man he’d taken on all those years ago, the very first sidekick he trained to grow up into a well-loved hero in his own right…
Bruce picked a nobody named Azrael.
Azrael was DC’s response to fandom’s call for a 90’s-style extreme Batman, and he did looked the part. Wearing a grotesque armor that barely resembled Batman, he was brutal and merciless and showed little regard for innocent bystanders. He soon relinquished the mantle of Batman after Bruce himself healed his broken back.
However, Bruce wasn’t ready to be Batman just yet. He then offered the mantle to Dick Grayson, revealing that he did not want to offer it because Dick had already established his own identity and life as Nightwing.
Dick would become Batman again a few years later after the events of Final Crisis, where Bruce appeared to die after a fatal confrontation with Darkseid, the dark lord of Apokolips.
This being comics, Bruce Wayne returned from the dead and reclaimed the title again.
Other characters have also become Batman, like Commissioner Gordon himself, wearing a government-sponsored mecha outfit, and in an alternate future, Damian Wayne becomes Batman and has embraced his dark and brutal side. Terry McGinniss also became a young Batman under the supervision of an elderly Bruce Wayne in the animated series Batman Beyond.
Batman on Screen
Even though Adam West had his own Batman movie, it would take us until 1989 to see a Batman that hews closer to the comic book version. Tim Burton’s Batman showed us a leather-clad Batman, wearing bulletproof armor, fighting Jack Nicholson’s Joker. Outside of the cowl, Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne was charming and disarming. This movie wasn’t perfect though – it gave Joker a definite backstory, going as far as naming him Jack Napier. And it showed Batman wantonly killing criminals, a huge break from his comic book counterpart.
Michael Keaton would reprise the Dark Knight one more time in Batman Returns, starring Danny DeVito as a very grotesque Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. The Batman series continued with new director Joel Schumacher, utilizing a decidedly lighter tone with Val Kilmer in Batman Forever and George Clooney in Batman & Robin. These two movies have been critically panned and are still notorious for including nipples on Batman and Robin’s suits.
The movie series would get a reboot with 2005’s Batman Begins, directed by Chris Nolan and starring Christian Bale. This version sets Batman in a more realistic depiction of Gotham, grounding Batman’s suit and equipment with real-life military equipment. The movie also heavily borrows elements from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. Nolan and Bale follows this up with The Dark Knight, featuring Heath Ledger’s amazing performance of an anarchic Joker. They close out the trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, which adapted the Knightfall storyline. Tom Hardy plays a menacing Bane.
For the DC Extended Universe, Ben Affleck played the Caped Crusader for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. Although Affleck put in an amazing performance, both movies have been critically panned.
Robert Pattinson took over the cowl for 2022’s The Batman, which serves as yet another reboot for the caped crusader. This time it focuses more on the detective side of Batman and it also examines what the hero should stand for in Gotham.
The Dark Knight: Enduring at 80
Even though Batman’s future on the big screen is unclear, he is still a major driving force in the comics. Dark Knights Metal introduced multiple alternate universe versions of the character, while the main Batman is playing a vital part in the Doomsday Clock crossover. He proposed and was set to be married to Selina Kyle, was left at the altar, and is now trying to fight for his own happiness.
The fandom has also embraced Adam West’s campy take on the character, with comic book writers often inserting references to Adam West in their books. It seems that we have found a happy medium between the camp and the dark sides of Batman.Sure, he leads a lonely crusade, but there are no rules against Batman having a little fun out of this life he chose.
Take away all the excess the character has accumulated over the last 80 years, it still is a story of a young boy who has had his life violently changed. Bruce Wayne is doing his best to deal with his trauma by rising above it and becoming both a symbol of fear and hope. And isn’t that what makes Batman enduring?
This article was orignally published in 2019 in the now-defunct Mantle Magazine.