Batman's Traumatic Origins

Seven years after being brutalized, he created a comic-book superhero that would become a pop-culture legend—and whose appeal may be deeply, subtly connected to what happened that night in the lumber yard.

The Dark Knight

In 1938, the first superhero arrived on the scene—Superman—and the comic book industry leapt from infancy into what is now known as its golden age. The “Man of Steel” not only changed the course of comic books, he set the course for Robert Kahn’s entire professional career. Here is how that happened.

Superman was a huge commercial success. So one Friday, a DC Comic’s editor asked Kahn, who now used the name Kane and drew slapstick comics, to come up with his own superhero to complement the Man of Steel.

Kane wrote, “Over the weekend I laid out a kind of naked superhero on the page, with a figure that looked like Superman or Flash Gordon. I placed a sheet of tracing paper over him so that I could create new costumes that might strike my fancy. Then, POW! It came to me in a flash—like the old cliché of an electric light bulb lighting up over a cartoon character’s head when he has a brainstorm. I remembered Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of a bat-like flying machine.”

And that’s when Bob Kane created Batman.

DC / Bob Kane
DC / Bob Kane

The opening lines of the first Batman comic strip set the tone for a contemporary myth that has endured for 75 years: “The ‘Bat-Man,’ a mysterious and adventurous figure fighting for righteousness and apprehending the wrong doer, in his lone battle against the evil forces of society ... his identity remains unknown.” Six issues later we learn what makes the Batman tick: a terrible trauma. In his youth Bruce Wayne witnessed the brutal murder of his father and mother by a street hoodlum. He vows to avenge their deaths by declaring war on all criminals and dons the bat cape and cowl to frighten his enemy. “And thus is born this weird figure of the dark … This avenger of evil. The Batman.”

Kane recognized three separate influences on the creation of Batman. The first was da Vinci’s model of a flying machine called the Ornithopter, created about 500 hundred years ago. The second was the movie The Mark of Zorro. “Zorro’s use of a mask to conceal his identity,” Kane writes, “gave me the idea of giving Batman a secret identity.” The third influence on Batman was a movie Kane saw the year before his attack by the Vultures: The Bat Whispers, an adaptation of a novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart. In the movie a detective tries to track down a mysterious killer, the Bat, and at the end of the film the detective is revealed to be the killer himself. His black robe and bat-shaped head made him look “very ominous” to Kane.

Da Vinci's ornithopter sketch (Wiki)
A still from The Mark of Zorro (United Artists)
A still from The Bat Whispers (United Artists)

Kane also acknowledged the influence of other movies on what he called “the dark, mysterioso atmosphere” he tried to evoke in Batman. “Movies like Dracula,” Kane writes, “... left an indelible impression on me. The first year of Batman was heavily influenced by horror films, and emulated a Dracula look.”

Kane never acknowledged any link between his attack by the Vultures and his creation of Batman. His conscious purpose in relating the lumberyard nightmare in his autobiography was to show how close he came to losing his career as a cartoonist.

Batman’s Battles: Post-Traumatic Play

From the beginning, horror was an important element of Batman. Kane envisioned the character as “a lone, mysterious, grim vigilante who operated outside the law.” He succeeded in actualizing this vision. According to The World Encyclopedia of Comics:

The Batman was portrayed as a relentless manhunter dedicated to the eradication of crime. He would play on criminals’ fear of the night and exploit his bat-like appearance. He could be vicious—he shot more than one man—and his amazing abilities overwhelmed the common hoodlum. In short, The Batman was an avenging vigilante. He was never depicted as the bon vivant, talk-of-the-party crimefighter; rather, the early Batman strips presented him as a slightly unsavory character. This dark, mysterious mood was greatly cultivated and well-portrayed in the 1940s and early 1950s.

After discussing how the mood of the comic strip lightened up in the second year of publication, Kane wrote, “I prefer the first year of Batman when he operated solo and was a more sombre [sic] character.” He also refers to this Batman as looking “vampirish” and “ominous-looking,” the same adjective he used to describe that dark night in the lumberyard.

But how might Batman be linked to that night? First we need to establish that the attack by the Vultures created a psychic trauma. In common with other trauma victims, Kane is fascinated with the dark side of life. More significant, Kane wrote that the assault in the lumberyard remains etched in his memory like a nightmare. His vivid blow-by-blow account of the assault, some 57 years later, is exactly the sort of detailed memory that plagues people who have suffered a traumatic experience.

I believe Kane was traumatized, and used his art to symbolically reenact his trauma. He acknowledged that Bruce Wayne and Batman were his alter egos. When consulted on the script of the movie “Batman,” Kane advised that, “Bruce Wayne should be played as a psychologically disturbed eccentric who is not quite focused except when he dons his bat-regalia to fight crime.” Then he admitted, “I drew Bruce Wayne in my own image.”

Presented by

Richard A. Warshak is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He is the author of Divorce Poison: How To Protect Your Family From Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing.

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