The Ancestry of Batman
If your aspiration is to write comics, the quintessential question you would ask yourself is how do I create the next great superhero? If you have, you might have started basing them off pre-existing characters. This is not so unusual. Even cultural icons like Batman were based upon earlier concepts. Created by Bob Kane in 1939, Batman has roots in detective, pulp, and even Gothic fiction.
The Batman we know today is famous for his intellect, his inner turmoil, his heroics, and his dual personality. I have thus traced these traits back through time in search of characters with shared characteristics. In doing so, I have created a family tree of sorts. Hopefully, this will lead us to a better understanding of this extraordinarily popular hero.
Sherlock Holmes (1887)
In one of the earlier episodes of Cartoon Network’s Batman the Brave and the Bold (2008-2011), Batman meets his oldest ancestor, the one and only Sherlock Holmes. The most obvious predecessor, Sherlock is meant to embody logic and order. Batman fills the same role. How do they do it? Well, in Batman’s case it’s often brute force. But born in Detective Comics, Batman is a detective at his core. It is usually his intellect not his physical prowess that gets him through sticky situations. Sherlock too relies on intellect more than physical force. In this case, intellect can be just as forceful as breaking a rib. To compare these two detectives we must study some of their greatest foes.
Sherlock’s greatest enemy is Professor James Moriarty, a criminal mastermind. Sherlock describes him as such, “But the man had hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers.” The two of them are in a constant battle of wits. One such battle occurs in the short story, “The Final Problem (1893).” In that story, Moriarty attempts several times to take Sherlock’s life, but not by his own hand. Instead, he hires other criminals to do the killing for him, for with a mind as great as his, he has no need for physical confrontation himself. Unfortunately, for Sherlock he can’t prove any connection to the criminal mastermind. The detective continues to persist as he believes this will be the greatest case in history, as Moriarty is his only intellectual equal. At the end of the story Sherlock and his partner, Watson, track down Moriarty in Switzerland near the natural landmark Reichenbach Falls. While there, Watson is sent away under mysterious circumstances. Expecting this, Sherlock makes no move to stop him. The narration does not follow Sherlock but instead follows Watson as he discovers Sherlock has finally faced his foe. It is believed that neither party survived this encounter. Later on, in the direct sequel to “The Adventure of the Empty House,” it is revealed that Sherlock outwitted Moriarty and survived the fall, proving at last the Sherlock has the greater mind. Batman has faced a similar enemy.
The Riddler is one Batman’s earliest and formidable enemies. Formerly known as Edward Nygma, the Riddler came to Gotham in pursuit of a challenge. In many of his appearances he is merely a disembodied voice taunting Batman at every turn. In Batman: the Animated Series the Riddler appears several times. In the episode entitled “The Riddler’s Reform,” the Riddler has appeared to have gone straight. But Batman is no fool. Riddler has since gotten in the toy business and uses his costumed persona to market said toys. Through close inspection it is revealed to Batman that it’s all a ruse. Riddler sets up an elaborate trap for Batman to maneuver. As he makes his way through the trap, a bomb is revealed rigged to blow if he were to pass it. Physical force would do little to stop the bomb. But through thought and ingenuity Batman is able to escape unscathed. Astonished, the Riddler asks how he escaped the explosion. Batman responds with “That’s my little riddle.” Riddler than promises to elaborate on all his past crimes if Batman let’s him in on the secret. The episode ends with the Riddler back in Arkham Asylum howling “No way he could have gotten out! Somebody tell me! Do you hear me? SOMEBODY TELL ME HOW HE DID IT! I have to know! I HAVE TO KNO-O-O-O-OW!”
Moriarty and Riddler are pure intellectual challenges, they challenge what Sherlock and Batman are at their very core. They are detectives, not cops or thugs. Where they differ, however, is the fact is that Batman is a detective and a solider. Other Batman enemies need to be defeated physically to be beaten. In these cases, Batman relies on fear which Sherlock knows very little about.
Moving away from logic and order, we take a look at fear. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a clear visual influence on Batman. Written in 1897 by Irish writer Bram Stoker, Dracula is known for its commentary on colonialism and sexual convention in the Victorian era. But it is better known for creating the modern vampire we all know today. In some ways Batman and Dracula are similar. They both are creatures of the night, they sometimes seem to appear in mist or shadow, and they frighten those who oppose them. But the major difference between these two icons is one is a villain and the other is a hero. Dracula is a monster, pure and simple. And although Batman is a hero, he can be vengeful or frightening. His inner monster has popped up on many occasions. It’s on these occasions that the Dracula influence can be seen.
Dracula is physically imposing, he is described as aristocratic, elegant, and dangerous. What makes him frightening, in addition to drinking your blood, is his strength. If he grabbed you by the throat or even by the arm he could crush it like a toothpick. In one scene, Dracula is about to drink someone’s blood and is described as such “With his long sharp nails he opened a vein in his breast. When the blood began to spurt out, he took my hands in one of his, holding them tight and with the other ceased my neck and pressed my mouth to the wound so that I must either suffocate or swallow…” This is unquestionably a monstrous act, is Batman capable of such acts?
Batman is also physically imposing. In the graphic novel Batman: Hush, Batman comes incredibly close to killing the Joker. He thinks to himself “I could break his ribs and puncture his lungs.” But, thankfully, Commissioner Gordon shows up to remind him Batman is no killer. “If he wanted to be a killer he would have already done it.” Regularly, Batman will hang criminals off rooftops or break their bones to get them to talk. He is willing to do what other heroes, like Superman, will not. In the film Batman and Superman: Apocalypse, Batman is willing to destroy a world to save Earth, is this a heroic act?
Batman’s relation to Dracula at first seems simply visual. But closer inspection would show a similar darkness and malice. Still, Batman has more sides to him. He’s not a monster, although he is capable of monstrosities. His heroic side always wins out in the end, his heroic qualities can been seen in another masked hero.
The pulpiest creation on this list is none other than Zorro or in his civilian identity Don Diego de La Vega. Created in 1919 by pulp fiction writer Johnston McCulley, Zorro made his debut in The Curse of Capistrano. People quickly fell in love with the romantic swashbuckling hero. Shortly after his debut, film star Douglas Fairbanks got his hands on him and produced the film The Mark of Zorro (1920). Don Diego was Californian nobleman living in Los Angeles under Spanish rule. He dons a mask to fight villainy and treachery caused by tyrannical officials. Zorro seems to be a direct influence on Batman. In many adaptions the Wayne family is seen leaving a showing of Mark of Zorro right before the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Wayne. But unlike Zorro, Batman does his heroics at night.
Zorro famously dispatches his villains in a public fashion. In the 1920 film Mark of Zorro, Diego strives to protect the people of Los Angeles from the corrupt Governor Alvarado. Along the way, he courts the damsel Lolita in and out of costume. But when things begin to go awry, Diego can no longer hide behind his mask and he is willing to throw it all away for the good of the people. He demonstrates his skill with a sword and convinces a group of soldiers to join him on his crusade. With them by his side, he is able to force Alvarado to retire and in the process save Lolita from a horrid suitor. It’s in that gesture that he truly proves himself a hero, his secret identity is not as important as the lives of others. His skill with a blade is honorable, his ability to lead is beneficiary, but its his heart and his selfishness that impresses a young Bruce. Bruce Wayne or Batman proves to have just as much skill and heart as his hero.
In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Batman is around fifty years old. He no longer has the strength or endurance he had in his youth, but Gotham needs him as the ever-present threat of a gang called the Mutants grows stronger. Aided by a young woman named Carrie Kelly, Batman embraces the cape and cowl again. Despite his age and failing health he gives it a good fight. When the Mutants are no longer a concern, other disasters follow such as the Joker’s return and a nuclear winter. In the midst of all this horror and death, Batman rounds up former mutant gang members to protect Gotham from absolute destruction. Soon after, the U.S. government sends Superman to cut Batman down to size. They believe he is a menace to society, a political liability, but Batman will not give in. In a world where law is corrupt and innocent people are forgotten and stepped on he cannot and will not step aside. He tells Superman “You’re beginning to get the idea, Clark. We could have changed the world…now…look at us…I’ve become a political liability…and…you…you’re a joke.” Towards the end of this conversation Batman’s failing health catches up with him, presumed dead his civilian identity is revealed to world. Unbeknownst to everyone but select few Batman is alive and training others to take his place as protectors of Gotham.
To be hero we could root for, they need heart and determination. Batman has heart although he doesn’t always show it. Perhaps he learned it from Zorro, but who’s to say really? I think we can attribute Batman’s longevity to his promising intellect, his inner darkness, and his determined crusade to protect humanity. The elements that created Batman are scattered through the human consciousness. The greatest characters are not simply created, but refurbished again and again until its right. I believe this how characters become icons. They must be interesting and perhaps a bit familiar. If all these writers and creators inspired Batman I can only imagine who he might inspire.
What do you think? Leave a comment.