Batman has been one of the most recognizable figures in comic books, entertainment, and pop culture for over 80 years. Beginning with his run in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, he emerged as a popular figurehead for DC Comics and received his own series in 1940. From that day to the present, the Caped Crusader has undergone significant changes and alterations to his character, some of which were met with great acclaim, others with controversy.
For decades his personality and storylines were far cheerier than his currents fans would expect, until the ‘80s when storylines like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns gave us a grittier Batman capable of utter ruthlessness. The original Robin, Dick Grayson was replaced too, giving up the mantle of Boy Wonder to Jason Todd, a character that would emerge with his own controversies to add to the Bat canon. And while Batman became increasingly known for being involved in dark stories, certain authors have pushed him to his limits.
10 THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS
The Dark Knight Returns, the 1986 comic by Frank Miller responsible for breathing new life into the Batman franchise was as celebrated as it was criticized. Batman’s storylines had become stale, and times had changed since the chummy, jocular narratives in the comics and epitomized in the ‘60s television show.
Miller painted a dystopian view of Gotham City in chaos, where Batman was older, more cynical, and actually prone to using firearms and killing (both things he swore he’d never do). It was also the first time Batman’s origins were changed to reflect him being an orphan witnessing the death of his parents. Some embraced the change in tone, while others felt like this wasn’t the Batman they’d grown up with.
9 BATMAN: DAMNED #1
While many Batman chronicles are controversial for issues involving excessive violence, torture, and assault, Brian Azzarello’s Batman: Damned series was controversial for a reason that no one was expecting; seeing the Wayne family jewels. Batman: Damned #1 was intended to be issued for DC’s Black Label series of comics for “Mature Readers” because it dealt with Batman possibly murdering the Joker in cold blood, but readers ended up just focusing on the outline of Bruce Wayne’s Bat-Pole when he unabashedly stripped out of his batsuit.
DC recalled the issue for reprinting, and all subsequent issues featured a black-out version of Bruce Wayne’s nether-regions, but some copies still made it to the shelves of retailers and are floating around for your viewing pleasure.
8 NIGHTWING #93
While this entry isn’t specifically Batman related, it involves his former Robin, Dick Grayson, who moved on from being Batman’s sidekick to adopt his own superhero persona, Nightwing. Nightwing #93 placed Nightwing in a predicament; an enemy, Blockbuster, had discovered his secret identity and promised to murder everyone he loved, forcing Nightwing to have to kill him or risk the consequences.
Unsure of what to do, a superhero he’d been coaching, Tarantula, made the decision for him, and shot Blockbuster in the head right in front of his eyes. Horrified and covered in the blood of a man he could not prevent from dying, Nightwing was further traumatized when he was sexually assaulted by her!
Since its emergence in Batman canon in 2002, Hush has proved to be one of the fan-favorite Batman storylines in the last two decades. Despite its controversial content, the narrative surrounding Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend Thomas Elliot piqued fans’ interest, especially when he made Bruce believe he was his half brother.
After he became the villain Hush, he would use different people influential to Batman to get inside his head, including Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and even his old Robin, Jason Todd. Hush almost achieved tainting the Wayne family forever with his mind games, a feat that impressed fans as much as it disturbed them. The revelation at the end of the tale left fans divided and in
6 BATMAN #55
The Dark Knight lives by his own strict moral code, and there have been only a few times he’s broken his vow to never kill anyone. Only situations that are so extreme, and cause him to suffer the most emotional turmoil warrant such consideration. The events of Batman #55, in which his former sidekick Dick Grayson gets shot in the head, is one of those times.
Batman tracks the perpetrator, his old nemesis KGBeast, to the wintry tundras of Russia and engages the sniper in hand to hand combat. As the brawl winds down, he shows no mercy and shoots KGBeast in the face with his grappling gun. He leaves KGBeast to die with a broken neck.
To some Batman fans, the Knightfall series by Chuck Dixon and Dennis O’Neill contained some of the most controversial moments of the Caped Crusader’s life. It was at a time when Bane had broken out the inmates of Arkham Asylum and pledged to throw Gotham City into chaos. The decisive moment came when he beat The Bat senseless and finally broke Batman’s back, putting him out of commission.
Batman had to train a replacement and selected Jean-Paul Valley, a former member of The Sacred Order of St. Dumas, an assassin’s guild. And while Valley proved capable, he soon decided on his own form of justice under the name Azrael, murdering criminals in cold blood.
4 BATMAN #424: THE DIPLOMAT'S SON
Jason Todd was the second Robin, taking over for Dick Grayson after his 40 years of portraying the Boy Wonder. Todd, though initially a Grayson-like clone, became a unique figure in Batman canon for shrouding it in controversy with one fateful issue. Batman #424: The Diplomat’s Son featured a plot with no easy conclusion.
In this issue, the law couldn’t touch a South American criminal who beat his girlfriend because of his diplomatic immunity. When Batman’s back was turned, the man fell from a skyscraper. When Batman asked Robin if he had been pushed, he vaguely responded that he “must have slipped”, lending weight to the theory Robin murdered him because he was untouchable by the police.
3 ALL STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN THE BOY WONDER #10
Known for the controversial Batman masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns, author Frank Miller has been known for pushing boundaries when it comes to the Batman franchise, especially in his All Star Batman series. Not only was it criticized for Batman's severe treatment of Robin (he kidnaps him and force feeds him rats in the Batcave), it was also controversial for its cavalier treatment of Batman's romantic life with other masked heroes (such as steamy relations in public with Black Canary).
But the biggest upset would feature in All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder #10 with the appearance of Batgirl fighting it out with some drug dealers. Though their less than kind words were blacked out with black bars, they were ultimately visible in print, and ended up featuring a 15-year-old girl being called one of the most offensive things possible.
2 DEATH IN THE FAMILY
Comics today paint the death of their characters with a broad stroke. So many will be resurrected, come to be found part of an alternate timeline, or have their histories retconned that it can be hard to imagine a time when the death of a comic character felt really finite.
Perhaps the single most controversial Batman story ever written, if only because it sparked national outrage, was Death in the Family, focused on the tragic death of Jason Todd, aka Robin. The graphic sequence of events leads to panels of The Joker smiling maniacally as he beats Jason to death with a crowbar, a murder that would irrevocably alter the character of the Caped Crusader.
1 THE KILLING JOKE
At once critically acclaimed for its complex storyline and condemned for its brutality, The Killing Joke endures as one of the most salacious and controversial entries in the Batman canon. Batman is led into a cat and mouse game with The Joker who, after kidnapping Barbara Gordon, tortures her, assaults her, and finally shoots her in the hip, paralyzing her forever. Worst of all he leaves photographic evidence for Batman to find.
The comic was supposed to make readers take an introspective look at the Batman legacy of crime fighting, with the Joker's immortal words being uttered “it only takes one bad day” to mean the difference between a hero and a villain.