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Becoming the Bat: The History of Batman’s Many Origins

by  in CBR Exclusives, Comic News Comment
Becoming the Bat: The History of Batman’s Many Origins

Leslie Thompkins and Batman, from "Detective Comics" #457 by Denny O'Neil and Dick Giordano

The scene has played out across countless pages and in virtually every moving-picture medium: Ffter seeing his parents murdered in a botched holdup, a young boy vows to become the scourge of crime. Since 1939, creative teams from the Golden Age to the New 52 have reinterpreted the events which led that boy to become a bat. Now the current Bat-team of Tom King and Mikel Janin have introduced their own wrinkle into Bruce Wayne’s formative experiences, with the perspective-altering revelations of “Batman” volume 3 issue #12.

RELATED: Tom King Just Changed the Very Foundation of Batman’s Origin Story

Whether fans and pros alike will accept King and Janin’s changes — and what effect they may have on the character himself — remains to be seen. Despite being one of superhero comics’ most iconic sequences, this isn’t the first time Batman’s origin has been augmented, tweaked, or even reworked. Today we’ll examine how Batman’s beginnings have changed both subtly and significantly since they first came to light.

THE ORIGINAL ACCOUNT

"Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot"

“I shall become a bat!” The classic origin from ‘Detective Comics” #33 (November 1939).

Batman may be the most prominent superhero whose first appearance didn’t include his origins. Of course, he debuted in May 1939’s “Detective Comics” #27 (by co-creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger) — which, in light of Commissioner Gordon’s remarks about him, doesn’t sound like his first in-universe appearance. In any event, readers had to wait six months for Kane, Jerry Robinson, Sheldon Moldoff and (probably) Finger to supply the backstory.

RELATED: Bruce Wayne’s Shocking Revelation Channels Batman Writer’s Childhood

The Batman story in November 1939’s “Detective” #33 (“The Batman Wars Against The Dirigible of Doom”) kicked off with a page-and-a-half sequence which has proved far more memorable than the main plot. Not counting the opening caption, which intoned “Legend: The Batman and how he came to be!”, the whole thing takes just twelve panels. According to the omniscient narrator, “fifteen years ago” a mugger accosted “Thomas Wayne, his wife and son [while they] were walking home from a movie.” He demands the unnamed Mrs. Wayne’s necklace, Thomas intervenes and is shot; and when Mrs. Wayne calls for help, the mugger shoots her too.

The mugger then leaves the grieving boy alone with his parents’ bodies under the now-iconic streetlight. A caption describes his eyes “wide with terror and shock as the horrible scene is spread before him”; and he cries “Father … Mother! … Dead! They’re d-dead.” The story then skips ahead a few days, as “a curious and strange scene takes place.” At his bedside, Bruce is in the middle of an oath: “And I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”

Next we see Bruce as a young man, with two panels summarizing all his training. In the first he wears a lab coat and goggles, and holds up a test tube: “As the years pass, Bruce Wayne prepares for his career. He becomes a master scientist.” The second panel shows a bare-chested Bruce lifting a barbell one-handed: “Trains his body to physical perfection until he is able to perform amazing athletic feats.”

The final four panels bring it all home, as Bruce muses in his study and is inspired by a certain nocturnal visitor.

Dad’s estate left me wealthy. I am ready. But first I must have a disguise. Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible … a … a … [cue the open window] a bat! That’s it! It’s an omen! I shall become a bat!

The last of these panels shows Bruce in costume: “And thus is born this weird figure of the dark … this avenger of evil — ‘The Batman.'”

THE GOLDEN AGE

Mic drop

“I am Bruce Wayne!” From “Batman” #47, by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Charles Paris

That account was reprinted the next year in “Batman” vol. 1 #1 (Spring 1940). There, a half-page portrait of Batman and the new caption “The Legend of the Batman — Who He Is And How He Came to Be!” replaced the “Dirigible of Doom”-specific artwork from “Detective” #33. Meanwhile, the introduction of Robin in April 1940’s “Detective” #38 recalled Batman’s origin as well. Therein, Batman explains to Dick Grayson “[m]y parents too were killed by a criminal. That’s why I’ve devoted my life to exterminat[ing] them.” Batman then administers to Dick a slightly different oath: “And swear that we two will fight together against crime and corruption[,] never to swerve from the path of righteousness!”

For the rest of the 1940s, Batman and Robin fought crime without dwelling that much on each other’s reasons for doing so. The exception was one of the greatest Batman stories of all time (reprinted, fittingly, in 1988’s “The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told”). In June-July 1948’s “Batman” #47, Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Charles Paris revisited “The Origin Of Batman!” and saw the World’s Greatest Detective at last catch the gunman who killed the Waynes.

While investigating a smuggling ring, Batman sees a picture of gangster Joe Chill and is reminded instantly of that tragic night. His memories include a couple of revisions to the “Detective” #33 account. First, upon seeing her husband murdered, “Martha Wayne’s weak heart stopped from the sudden shock.” Second, and more pertinent to both versions, young Bruce gazed intently at Chill. As the caption describes, “[s]omething about [the boy’s] eyes made the killer retreat…. They were accusing eyes that memorized his every feature … eyes that would never forget….”

Aside from minor details like Bruce making his (slightly different) vow at his parents’ graves, generally “The Origin Of Batman” simply expands on its predecessor. It’s more concerned with the story at hand, with Batman telling Robin “this is one job I’m doing alone! I don’t have to explain — you understand why!” However, frustrated by his inability to pin any smuggling charges on Chill, Batman realizes “there’s only one way. It’s a desperate move … but I must take it … even if it means the end of Batman’s career!”

Batman confronts Chill about the Wayne murders, telling him that young Bruce memorized the killer’s features and could still identify him in court. Chill scoffs: “No jury would believe Wayne’s identification accurate after all these years! You’re bluffing! Besides … how do you know what really happened?”

“I know because I am the son of the man you murdered!” Batman bellows, unmasking. “I am Bruce Wayne!”

An unnerved Chill flees the scene, realizing that Batman will never stop coming after him. Running to his associates for help, he tells them how his actions “created” Batman — but they turn on him. Blaming him for everything Batman’s done to them over the years, they gun him down before he can reveal any secrets. Batman arrives soon afterwards and takes care of the thugs. Finally, as Chill dies, he tells Batman “I guess you got me after all….”

THE SILVER AGE

Foreshadowing

From “The First Batman” in “Detective Comics” #235, by Bill Finger, Sheldon Moldoff and Stan Kaye

In September 1956’s “Detective Comics” #235 the origin got a couple more major additions, namely crime boss Lew Moxon and his history with Thomas Wayne. “The First Batman!” (written by Bill Finger, pencilled by Sheldon Moldoff and inked by Stan Kaye) establishes that Dr. Wayne wore a bat-man costume to a masquerade ball whose theme was “Flying Creatures.” (Martha Wayne dressed as a tripping butterfly.) While there, he was kidnapped in order to take a bullet out of Moxon’s shoulder. Knowing that Moxon wouldn’t let him live once the operation was over, Dr. Wayne managed to escape and called the police on Moxon and his men. Moxon vowed to get even with Dr. Wayne, hiring Joe Chill to pose as a holdup man. In hindsight, Bruce figures a) that the bat which inspired him actually triggered the memory of his dad’s costume; and b) that he was left alive to testify that his parents were killed during a robbery, not murdered by Moxon. “Put on your costume, Dick,” Bruce exclaims, “we’ve just reopened the Wayne murder case!”

Tracking Moxon “out west [to] Coastal City,” Batman and Robin scuffle with Moxon’s men, but Moxon has never heard of Thomas Wayne and passes a lie-detector test to confirm it. A skeptical Batman learns that Moxon has partial amnesia from an intervening head injury. After the Dynamic Duo catch Moxon’s men during a blimp-facilitated burglary — not quite a dirigible of doom — Batman’s costume is shredded and there’s no spare in the Batplane. However, he’s brought along his dad’s bat-outfit (for sentimental reasons) and puts it on. When Batman goes to arrest Moxon, the shock of seeing Dr. Wayne’s old costume brings back all of Moxon’s memories. Ranting “[g]o away! You’re dead! I had Joey Chill kill you,” Moxon runs into the street, where he’s hit by a car and killed. Batman muses “I wanted to take him alive … to stand trial for his crimes … but his own guilt convicted him!”

Leslie Thompkins and young Bruce Wayne

Leslie Thompkins comforts young Bruce, from “Detective” #457 by Denny O’Neil and Dick Giordano

The Silver Age also featured a number of stories designed either to explore the Wayne family tree, flesh out Bruce’s biography, and/or foreshadow elements of Bat-mythology. These included

  • Ancestors like inventor Lancelot Wayne (“Detective” #306, August 1962) and Revolutionary War general Horatio Wayne (“Batman” #120, December 1958);
  • The future Batcave’s role as a hideout both for frontiersman Jeremy Coe (“Detective” #205, March 1954) and later for Confederate spies (“Batman” #64, April-May 1951) and even gangsters (“Detective” #223, September 1955);
  • Bruce’s uncle Phillip, who became his guardian but who entrusted much of Bruce’s care to his housekeeper Mrs. Chilton, actually Joe Chill’s mother (“Batman” #208, January-February 1969);
  • The history of Park Row, which after the Wayne murders was called “Crime Alley,” and the kindness of resident Leslie Thompkins to the grieving Bruce (“Detective” #457, March 1976); and
  • Bruce’s brief boyhood stint wearing a prototype of the Robin costume and learning from detective Harvey Harris (“Detective” #226, December 1955).

IT STARTED IN THE 1980s

"None of you are safe."

Batman takes on the one percent, from “Batman” #405 by Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli and Richmond Lewis

Writer Len Wein integrated all of this lore into a three-issue miniseries drawn by John Byrne and Jim Aparo. “The Untold Legend of the Batman” (July-September 1980) began with Batman receiving a package containing the shredded remains of Thomas Wayne’s costume, and ended with the revelation that he himself had been responsible (subconsciously) for various attempts at self-sabotage. Along the way, though, it strung together the stories of Moxon, Chill, Leslie, Uncle Phillip and Mrs. Chilton, and Bruce’s training under Harvey Harris and others. “Untold Legend” showed Bruce at college, majoring in criminology and minoring in psychology, and eventually turning away from straight-up police work towards a more colorful career. The first issue closed with Batman confronting Chill and Moxon. The rest dealt with the origins of Robin and Alfred (who at this point wasn’t always the Wayne butler, but who came to America after Robin’s debut), Commissioner Gordon, Batgirl, Lucius Fox, the Joker, Two-Face, and even the Batmobile. While entertaining, it was the kind of story which cried out for “Marvels”-style annotations.

Acting!

A disguised Bruce Wayne orders some tailoring, from “Secret Origins” #6 by Roy Thomas, Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin

In fact, when Roy Thomas, Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin tackled the origin of the Golden Age Batman in September 1986’s “Secret Origins” #6, the issue’s letters page did just that. Thomas included Chill but not Moxon, added details of Bruce’s history with the theater, and extrapolated from an obscure March 1959 story (“Batman’s First Case,” in “Detective” #265) for the details of Batman’s actual debut. However, the bulk of the story balanced Bruce’s Bat-career — symbolized by a retelling of “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” from “Detective” #27 — against his romance of Golden Age sweetheart Julie Madison.

Naturally, the one-two punches which knocked out all those Silver and Bronze Age stories came from Frank Miller. His silent, slow-motion retelling of the Wayne murders in 1986’s “The Dark Knight Returns” (inked by Klaus Janson and colored by Lynn Varley) immortalized Martha Wayne’s falling pearls and young Bruce’s fall into the future Batcave; and his version of the origin itself in 1987’s “Batman: Year One” (serialized in “Batman” issues #404-07; drawn by David Mazzucchelli and colored by Richmond Lewis) was intended to fill in the gaps of the original “Detective” #33 account.

In order to make their story work, Miller and Mazzucchelli had to change the supporting cast. First, they made Jim Gordon and his wife Barbara childless at first, forcing other creative teams to recast Batgirl as Jim’s raised-as-a-daughter niece. Second, they presented Alfred Pennyworth as the Wayne family butler, so that he could be there when Bruce returned home from twelve years abroad.

See, according to “Year One,” Bruce left Gotham City at age 13 to travel the world and learn everything he needed to know to become a successful vigilante. He came back to a Gotham so hip-deep in corruption it needed a creature of the night and at least one honest cop to even begin to clean it up. This time around, Bruce wasn’t sitting calmly in front of an open window musing about superstitious and cowardly criminals. Instead, he was bleeding to death after escaping from the back of a police car and almost running his Porsche off the road. When he rang the bell to summon Alfred, he was signaling the start of a new life.

“Year One” also marked the start of a successful cottage industry in Early Batman stories. After a bridge-the-gap story in “Detective” issue #574, 1987’s four-part “Year Two” (by Mike Barr, Alan Davis and Todd McFarlane) followed “Year One” immediately; and starting in 1989 the anthology “Legends of the Dark Knight” was devoted almost exclusively to stories set in this era. Readers soon met many of Bruce’s teachers, including Henri Ducard (created by “Batman” screenwriter Sam Hamm and Denys Cowan for 1989’s “Detective” issues #598-600), the revised versions of Leslie Thompkins (“Detective” #574) and Harvey Harris (1989’s “Detective Annual” #2) and Master Kirgi of the League of Assassins (“Batman” #431, March 1989). Other superheroes like Ted “Wildcat” Grant and John Zatara — as well as the less-savory likes of assassin David Cain — taught Bruce skills like boxing, magic and martial arts. In short, the timeline of Batman’s history could be divided into a few big chunks: Young Bruce, Traveling the World, “Year One” and Everything Else. Writer Ed Brubaker even brought back Lew Moxon and his daughter for a few issues in the early 2000s.

Perhaps the last major addition to Bruce’s backstory was Tommy Elliott. Introduced in 2002’s “Batman” #609 in a manner that totally didn’t foreshadow his eventual supervillain career, Tommy was Bruce’s childhood neighbor with a dark secret. He arranged for his parents to be killed in a car accident, but Dr. Wayne saved the life of Tommy’s mother (who would later die of cancer). Eventually Tommy became Hush, a would-be master criminal who never quite parlayed his knowledge of Batman’s secret identity into anything diabolically meaningful.

"Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne"

A time-twisted collage from “Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne” #6 by Grant Morrison and Lee Garbett

A few years later, Grant Morrison brought the whole process full circle by crafting a Bat-epic which incorporated (no pun intended) all the details and trivia he could find. Morrison’s villain Doctor Hurt is a long-lived Wayne ancestor from the 17th Century who wears Thomas Wayne’s bat-costume and seeks help from a bat-demon introduced in 1990’s “Dark Knight, Dark City” arc (“Batman” issues #452-54). Morrison had mixed it all together with elements from “52” and “Final Crisis” and made that bat crashing through the window into an avatar for darkness itself. To paraphrase another Morrisonism, Batman simply was — even as he then started taking the Bat-franchise worldwide.

ZERO YEAR

This is bat country

The Batman of “Zero Year,” courtesy of Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo and Danny Miki

Picking up roughly where Morrison and his artistic collaborators left off, writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo’s “Batman” run included the mammoth “Zero Year” arc. The year-long epic depicted Bruce Wayne’s adoption of the Batman identity; his early battles with the Red Hood gang, Doctor Death and the Riddler; and his struggle to help Gotham survive the aftereffects of a catastrophic hurricane.

“Zero Year” is unique among Batman origin stories. Unlike the “Detective” #33 account or even 1948’s “Origin of Batman,” it’s not simply backstory. Unlike “Untold Legend,” its story isn’t a structure from which various vignettes can be hung; and unlike “Year One,” it’s not an extrapolation from earlier stories or a springboard for future creative teams. Instead, “Zero Year” is an integral part of Snyder and Capullo’s overall Bat-tenure, placed — whether coincidentally or by design — in the middle of their four-year run.

On one level it’s an extended flashback whose themes inform the rest of Snyder and Capullo’s work. On another it’s metacommentary on Batman himself, using elements from throughout Bat-history (but not in a Morrisonian way) and acknowledging “Year One’s” inspirational role while recognizing that “Zero Year” necessarily supersedes it. The story’s details are arguably less important than its relationships, which include Gotham’s sometimes-antagonistic relationship to Batman and Bruce’s relationship with his costumed identity. “Zero Year” even suggests that the “Batman” persona could have developed organically — dare we say productively? — out of Bruce’s trauma. In “Zero Year,” Bruce describes Batman as “the crazy thing to keep me from going crazy,” so arguably there’s room for the current revelations in “Batman” #12.

On the whole, “Zero Year” is about new beginnings, including the imaginary future Bruce envisions with Julie Madison and their three children (at least one of which loves Zorro). It may not be as accessible to other stories as “Year One” turned out to be, since “ZY” ties so heavily into Snyder and Capullo’s other work. Moreover, if “Rebirth” facilitates yet another round of timeline tweaks — say, to reconcile the two versions of Superman and Lois Lane — that could mean even more significant changes to Batman’s origin. Although Snyder and Capullo left their mark on Batman, and Snyder’s influence continues with the “All-Star Batman” ongoing series, the plain fact of superhero serials is that whole chunks of material can be pushed aside if circumstances warrant it.

THE LEGEND

"Batman: Year One"

Detail from the cover of “Batman” #404, by David Mazzucchelli

Of course, the origin as described in November 1939 has never really gone away. Over the years it’s been augmented, but the elemental loss of Bruce’s parents is simply too powerful to ignore. Even the Adam West “Batman” TV series nodded to the origin, albeit in a line of dialogue from the first episode about Bruce’s parents being killed by “dastardly criminals.” The Wayne murders help make Batman relatable, and ultimately believable, because they are so shocking that they open the door to all manner of reactions. After your parents have been killed in front of your eyes, maybe you too could become a bat if you’d spent a childhood dedicated to warring on all criminals and you had the inheritance (and the open-window inspiration) to back it up. Tom King and Mikel Janin’s encapsulation of Bruce’s mental gymnastics is depicted so vividly that it’s very persuasive.

(By the same token, I feel compelled to point out that in the 4th Century, a certain monk from Asia Minor who himself had been orphaned at a young age ended up turning his own inheritance in a different direction. He did fight injustice, but he became more famous for his generosity. Needless to say, I would dearly love to see an Elseworlds called “When St. Nicholas Was Batman!” or vice versa.)

Batman’s origin endures thanks to its simplicity, but it changes to different degrees to suit its audience. Adam West’s viewers didn’t want to see a little kid’s parents murdered, but Zack Snyder’s thought they wouldn’t mind seeing it twice. Neither Frank Miller nor David Goyer seemed to care for “criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot,” although “Batman Begins” let a bat flit around Wayne Manor. As far as today’s readers know, “Zero Year” is still controlling authority, but the timey-wimey ramifications of “Rebirth” (or some future DC event) could change that. Regardless of such things — or of less cosmic shifts like the one in “Batman” #12 — the core will remain. The difference, when all is said and done, come down to what we the readers are willing to believe about the boy under the streetlight.

What do you think are the most iconic elements of Batman’s origin? Let us know in the comments!

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