Originally published in the Gotham Gazette
Who is The Batman? The question extends not just to the identity of the man (men?) beneath the cowl, but the figure itself. While everyone in Gotham can agree that The Batman has been a seminal character in our city’s history, they can’t agree on all that much more.
For example: when did The Batman first appear? Some will tell you that he originally swung Gotham’s concrete canyons in 1939. Many scoff at that, saying that he first came to our attention in the 80s. Still others - younger denizens of Gotham, perhaps - say that he’s only been patrolling the city streets for a few years. And there are a couple of outliers who will say that The Batman can be traced back in Gotham’s history as far as back as the 1800s.
Archival eyewitness sketch of The Batman from 1939.
As if this wide swath of opinion about the origins of The Batman aren’t confusing enough, almost every Gothamite you meet will insist on a radically different interpretation of the Caped Crusader. You will hear first hand tales of a ruthless, gun-wielding Batman. There are those who will tell you that The Batman is actually a genial kind of fellow, given to good-natured punning and ribbing with his sidekick, Robin (who himself is a controversial figure in Gotham. Some say he doesn’t exist. Others say he’s dead, that he’s been different young boys or that he’s even a girl. And if you get a couple of drinks into your average Gotham citizen it doesn’t take long to begin speculating about the exact nature of Batman’s relationship with the Boy Wonder). Some insist that The Batman is a violent street-level operator who eschews the company of the other gaudy superbeings who inhabit our world (unless they don’t inhabit our world - there’s been some heated debate lately about whether or not Batman is the only costumed vigilante patrolling the streets of a major American city, or if we all imagined those Superman and Green Lantern guys), while others will tell you that Batman has visited the Moon, hung out in a space station, traveled through time and is a gregarious and macho adventurer.
Photo claimed to be of The Batman.
How can there be so many different interpretations of one person? And this is just the persona of The Batman - the tales of his adventures are strangely redundant and yet oddly contradictory. A few years ago a popular theory of Batman held that The Joker was involved in whatever surely tragic events led to a man dressing up in a strange suit, and that the Clown Prince of Crime was killed at the end of their first encounter. But recently there are stories of The Joker surviving, while others have him returning again and again in escapades ranging from basic criminal behavior to mass murder to the horrific crippling of Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara (although recent reports indicate that perhaps she wasn’t crippled at all).
Folklorists believe that the story of The Joker may be a cultural misunderstanding of the film The Man Who Laughs, starring Conrad Veidt.
Every element of The Batman seems malleable. Some insist that he’s a master detective, using deductive reasoning as much as violence to take down foes. Others seem to believe he wouldn’t begin to know what to do with clues and that he just reacts to the master plans of his enemies. In some tellings he's a psychopath in a costume, in others he's a boy scout with a bat on his chest.
While all descriptions and images of him remain basically consistent - dark colored uniform with a Bat symbol on the chest, a cowl with pointed ears that leaves the lower half of his face visible (The Batman has consistently been reported as a Caucasian), a flowing cape - the details can vary wildly. Is the costume blue? Gray? Black? Cloth? Rubber? Some sort of body armor or just spandex? Even his voice has been reported in wildly different ways - some say he speaks like a regular man, while others claim he puts on a ridiculous stage whisper. And let’s not even get started on what his car looks like.
Recent news photo of someone purported to be The Batman. Reports claim he was asking for a throat lozenge.
There is one element of The Batman that seems fairly consistent throughout all the different variations reported. Whether he’s a dark knight defender of the city or a grinning guardian of good, Batman always feels like one of us. There are tales of other costumed avengers in the world, but Batman unique among them seems to be a regular person. We don’t know much about him or his true abilities, but every report is united on this front: Batman has no special powers, has no magical abilities and while he is a spectacular specimen of humanity, human is all he is. What The Batman assures us, in the end, is that we don’t have to be the last survivor of an alien planet or the recipient of a magic ring or a princess from a hidden culture of demigods to make a difference. We just have to be human beings committed to something important.
Having a cool pointy-eared hood goes a long way, too.