Who Is Batman?

By Arthur Smith

“Maybe every ten years Batman has to go through an evolution to keep up with the times.” —Batman creator Bob Kane

Like Walt Whitman, Batman contradicts himself and contains multitudes. He has been, at various times: A grim, bloodthirsty vigilante who thought nothing of tossing criminals from rooftops (his initial comic book appearances in the thirties)...

A bland, do-gooder, “Officer Friendly” type who cavorted with a young boy and faced outré foes in endless battles of no real consequence (the toothless but diverting comics of the fifties);

A camp figure of fun who held in his gut while intoning corny little epigrams (the phenomenally successful Batman TV series of the midsixties, echoed by the franchise-endangering Joel Schumacher films of the nineties);

A modern-day Sherlock Holmes with odd taste in evening wear (the “back to basics,” detective-oriented late sixties and seventies comic book stories);

A vengeful dark knight of mythic power bestriding a nightmarish dystopia (Frank Miller’s seminal eighties reinterpretation);

A psychologically fragmented neurotic eternally tending his wounded inner child (the Batman films of Tim Burton, and, most recently, Christopher Nolan).

What other modern myth could withstand such lunatic variety? It’s hard to imagine Mickey Mouse picking up a machine gun, or James Bond sobbing on a therapist’s couch. Batman could do either, and still be in character.

Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939 as a direct response to the phenomenal popularity of Superman, who had debuted the previous year, Batman was inspired by a peculiar mélange of influences: Kane has cited Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of a batwing-shaped “ornithopter” glider device as a principal visual inspiration, and the pulp tradition of animal-themed mystery men included a few bats in their number.


Other key influences were Zorro, a feckless rich playboy by day who became a dark, masked avenger by night, memorably played by Douglas Fairbanks on the silver screen, and Dick Tracy, a brilliant detective from the newspaper comics who used an array of ingenious technological gimmicks to battle a rogues gallery of grotesques and freaks.

One early Batman story directly references the eerie faceless Tracy villain the Blank with an identically designed character. 







The world got its first look at Batman on the cover of Detective Comics #27. The image is striking: instead of the primary colors and chiseled all-American good looks of Superman, Batman cut a bizarre figure, clad in black and gray, a huge scalloped cape billowing behind him like black wings, his face obscured by a sinister cowl with peaked “ears” (resembling horns?) that reduced his eyes to featureless white slits. The effect was markedly demonic, and that sensibility is continued in the ensuing story, in which our hero blithely tosses a thug to his death from a rooftop. Batman was not averse to blowing away criminals with guns in this period in the name of expediency. Kane would proclaim this original, dark take on Batman his favorite.


"Who Is Batman?" pages: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Photo credits: Alex Ross painting from Mythology, ©2005 Pantheon; Da Vinci drawing, Batman comic book panels, and Detective #27 cover from Batman: The Complete History © 1999 DC Comics; Dick Tracy comic strip panel from The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy 1931-1951 © 1990 The Wellfleet Press; The Mark of Zorro: © United Artists/Photofest

Batman, all titles, characters, their distinctive likenesses, and related elements are trademarks of DC Comics. All rights reserved.


Think you know Batman? Try out these expert-level Batman trivia questions.

What was the original color of Batman’s costume, as designed by Bob Kane?

What movie were the Waynes leaving on the occasion of the fatal mugging that led young Bruce to his career in crimefighting?

Many of Batman’s deadliest foes wind up in Arkham Asylum. What is the inspiration for this grim institution’s name?

Where did Batman’s underground lair, the Batcave, first appear?

At the end of the sixties, Batman leaves stately Wayne Manor for new digs. Where did he move?

According to the comic’s continuity, what was the name of the mugger who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents?

Who was Batman’s first recurring villain?

Batman’s sidekick Robin was based on what character from heroic fiction?

The mischievous Bat-Mite was inspired by a similar character from Superman comics; what was his name?

When the DC editorial staff became concerned about the all-male Wayne household, with whom did they temporarily replace manservant Alfred Pennyworth?

In the Batman television series, did the Joker wear a mustache?

How did the second Robin, Jason Todd, exit the series?

In Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, Christopher Walken plays a villain named Max Schreck. What is the origin of this name?

“Gotham City” was originally a pseudonym for New York City. What other name was considered?

By what name is Batman villain Oswald Cobblepot better known?