Batman's Traumatic Origins

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.”

Batman provided Kane with the opportunity, in fantasy, to take revenge repeatedly—and for the entire span of his career—on the hoodlums of the world. Instead of the defeated, helpless, terrorized victim Kane felt that night in the lumberyard, Batman is the master who strikes terror in others. “Zorro” was not sufficient to defeat the Vultures, but Batman would have no problem.

Batman not only reenacts Kane’s trauma by repeatedly fighting bad guys; he does so in a manner inspired by Kane’s night in the lumberyard. Just as Kane used a grappling hook to ward off his attackers, one of Batman’s earliest and most frequently used weapons is a grappling hook.

As I mentioned before, trauma scholars describe post-traumatic play as having three qualities: It is long-lasting, repetitive, and grim. Here we have 75 years of exploits in more than 4000 comic books, which certainly qualifies as long-lasting and repetitive. As for grim, consider this admission by Kane: “Had my early humorous strips been as successful as ‘Batman,’ I would have stayed with that style because, frankly, I received more pleasure from drawing them than I ever did from drawing ‘Batman.’” Even when Kane intended to create what he called a “gag strip” a year before the birth of Batman, he could not fully avoid what appear to be the echoes of trauma. Published in Circus Comics, the strip was called Sidestreets of New York and featured a mild-mannered boy who is accosted by the Gas House Gang and pushed into the river with his clothes on.

In reminiscing about the attack by the Vultures, Kane displayed another common symptom of trauma victims—finding reasons why he should have known in advance about the danger or suspected that something bad would occur. Psychologists refer to this as omen formation. Here’s how Kane took responsibility for his encounter with the Vultures: “I must confess that taking up the violin was a drastic mistake that almost altered my life. ... I should have known better than to be seen carrying a violin through the rough neighborhoods of the Bronx.” So, according to Kane, the beating he suffered was not because he had the ill fortune to be accosted by a gang of hoodlums. It was something he could have predicted. It was in his control all the time. He simply made a mistake. He chose the wrong instrument. This explanation, I believe, is Kane’s defense against the terror of being helpless.

Post-Traumatic Resonance: The Dark Knight Returns

Of course, we can only speculate about whether Kane’s life-threatening encounter with the Vultures on a dark night in a Bronx lumberyard inspired his creation of Batman. But regardless, the Batman myth, as originally conceived and as elaborated in contemporary interpretations, leaves no doubt that Bruce Wayne’s trauma is the raison d’être and driving force behind his life’s drama—or the reason why he endures.

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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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