The Dark Knight Spelunks: A Visual History of the Batcave

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What's going on down here, anyway?

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Since his first appearance in 1939's Detective Comics #27, Batman has arguably done more than walk a fine line between Gothic fiction and camp: He might have created that line -- or defined a whole new borderland between them. These two modes are there, pulling against each other, in every comic book, movie, or LP adventure record Batman has ever appeared in.

Look at him up there, crouched, brooding, on a gargoyle somewhere along Gotham's rain-soaked skyline; a tortured heart; straining to marshal his considerable smarts, will, and resources against only another horrible criminal plot to threaten his city ... wearing a pointy-eared mask, a cape, a utility belt, and a cool logo he made for himself. But if there's one element of Batman's universe that realizes its potential for Gothic camp more than any other -- one element that crystallizes its weirdly incoherent aesthetics into a distinct reality whose properties you can see in a glance -- it's the Batcave.

In the beginning, it didn't exist. There was a tunnel that ran from a staircase under Wayne Manor to an adjacent barn, with a winch that Batman and Robin could use to bring up the Batmobile or the Batplane -- as in this frame from 1940:

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As you can see, there was also a lab, along with some other rooms for storing things or running mysterious, high-tech equipment.

In 1942, Bill Finger -- the writer who co-created Batman with artist Bob Kane -- indicated the presence of "secret underground hangars" at the Wayne property. But in 1943, the new Batman movie serials presented the Batcave for the first time as Bruce Wayne's main base of operations, featuring a state-of-the-art crime lab, which he accessed through a grandfather clock in the main house. (In Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins -- the first chapter of the reboot he's wrapping up with The Dark Knight Rises this week -- you may remember, Wayne gets at the Batcave similarly through a secret door disguised to blend in with a big display case, opened by pressing the right sequence of keys on a piano in the same room.) It was a nice setup, despite being visibly infested by bats.

In 1943, Kane illustrated the Batcave in detail -- partly based on the movie version, partly based on a schematic cross section of underground hangars that Finger found in an issue of Popular Mechanics -- in the Batman daily comic strip:

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You can see the same basic plan -- and Bat-use cases -- developed in this panel from the early 1960s:

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Did you know that in the early '60s, sudden weather changes around mountains immediately beside prominent East-Coast mansions were not question-raising?

There are a few other additions to the old layout here (we've got a dock for the Batboat in an underground stream now, e.g.), but the most curious is the "trophy room," a corner of the Batcave that first appeared in the '40s but would now become one of the lair's signature features -- through this two-page spread from 1968:

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... the legendary DC Comics artist Dick Sprang's massive 1995 lithograph (also called "Secrets of the Batcave"):

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(Full size here. Impressive breakdown here.)

... and even more recent renderings (DNA spectrograph!) -- e.g.:

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(Full size here.)

What's that all about?

It's where Batman keeps huge memorabilia from his weirdest cases, of course -- as you would if you were a grim-faced dark avenger whose motives were rooted in terrible psychological trauma. (Zack Davisson runs down the inventory.) When comics, or movies, or video games take you down into the Batcave, you don't always see the trophy room. (Nolan has understandably left it out his take on Batman, which has used gritty realism to sand away cultural reminders of Joel Schumacher.) But I like to imagine it's there. Like Superman's Fortress of Solitude, the Batcave isn't just a place where Batman works; it's the place where he cares for his inner introvert. And however Gothic-somber-and-possessed Batman might get, there's always something deep inside him that's exactly as campy as an over-sized playing card next to a mechanical T-Rex and a giant 1947 Lincoln-head penny.

Images: DC Comics

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J.J. Gould is the editor of TheAtlantic.com. More

He has written for The Washington MonthlyThe American ProspectThe Moscow Times, The Chronicle Herald, and The European Journal of Political Theory. Gould was previously an editor at the Journal of Democracy, co-published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy, and a lecturer in history and politics at Yale University. He has also worked with McKinsey & Company's New York-based Knowledge Group on global public- and social-sector development and on the economics of carbon-emissions reduction. Gould has a B.A. in history from McGill University in Montreal, an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in politics from Yale. He is from Nova Scotia.

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