Batman's Traumatic Origins

In his essay, “Why I Chose Batman,” Stephen King elaborated the theme of Batman as a scary figure. After discussing how Superman’s superpowers, including the ability to fly, made it difficult to identify with him, the author wrote:

Maybe the real reason that Batman appealed to me more than the other guy.

There was something sinister about him.

That’s right. You heard me.


... Batman was a creature of the night. ...

In those Batman-busts-in panels, you almost always saw a horrid species of fear on the faces of the hoods he was about to flush down the toilet ... Yeah, I thought ... that’s right, they should look scared, I’d sure be scared if something like that busted in on me. I’d be scared even if I wasn’t doing something wrong.

DC / Frank Miller

Another reader who thought the illustrations looked scary was an eight-year-old boy named Frank, who was destined to play a major role in shaping the Batman myth. Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novella, The Dark Knight Returns, is generally credited with creating a resurgence of interest in Batman; newspapers and magazines heralded its release as the coming of age for comic books.

Here is Miller’s vision of Batman: “Do you know who I am, punk? I’m the worst nightmare you ever had. Kind that made you wake up screaming for your mother.” This is the sort of terror that occupies the world of Stephen King, who praised Frank Miller’s vision as “the finest piece of comic art ever to be published in a popular edition.”

Contemporary interpretations of Batman repeatedly emphasize Bruce Wayne’s trauma. Vaz believes, “This hero called the Dark Knight would probably have a very different place in comics history if not for that brutal origin, the memories of which are always lurking in the shadows of his mind and in the background of the mythos. ... It’s what haunts him, drives him, makes him the hero he is.”

In Batman: Year One, another Frank Miller story, Bruce Wayne describes the trauma as the night “all sense left my life.” This is the changed attitude about life that is a hallmark of traumatized children. That attitude is evident whenever Batman’s thoughts turn to the tragic event that occurred in what has become known as “Crime Alley.”

Batman has other symptoms of psychic trauma. A 1989 story, “Blind Justice,” written by Sam Hamm, depicts Batman as being plagued by anguish, nightmares, and wracking guilt. Hamm, who also wrote the screenplay to the 1989 Batman film, recalled Batman as being “very dark and ominous and quirky. That really makes the strongest impression on you when you’re a kid. ... Batman is a mysterious guy; he’s essentially a vigilante, and he’s a fairly disturbed character. His whole gimmick is, he wants to be menacing, he wants to be frightening, he wants to be shadowy.”

Roger Ebert had trouble with this “gimmick” as portrayed in the 1989 movie Batman: “There was something off-putting about the anger beneath the movie’s violence,” he wrote. “This is a hostile, mean-spirited movie about ugly, evil people, and it doesn’t generate the liberating euphoria of the ‘Superman’ or ‘Indiana Jones’ pictures. It’s rated PG-13, but it’s not for kids.” Recall that post-traumatic play is grim. Ebert recognized this quality and for him it was the obvious drawback of the movie—a movie that Bob Kane said kept him “spellbound.” In a critique that strikes at the heart of the film’s resonance with Kane’s traumatic vision, Ebert complained: “The movie's problem is that no one seemed to have any fun watching it. It’s a depressing experience. Is the opposite of comic book ‘tragic book’?”

Let me offer one final example of post-traumatic resonance. The essence of psychic trauma is the experience of a sudden, unexpected turn of events—the rug being pulled out from under, plunging the victim into a nightmare that remains etched in memory.

A 1989 elaboration of the origin of Batman captures this aspect of trauma with a simple metaphor. At some unspecified time before the murder of his parents, young Bruce fell into a hole, an old cave, filled with bats. The experienced was terrifying. Reminiscing about this earlier trauma Batman thinks, “You're walking along and you fall through a hole. You never stop falling.” This, of course, is exactly what it means to be traumatized.

Thus the stage is set for Bruce Wayne’s identification with the bat as his means of mastering trauma. Approximately 20 years later, when the re-traumatized orphan Wayne ponders the choice of his secret identity, he sees the bat and the curtain rises on his transformation to a “weird figure of the night.”

This story closes as it opened, with Batman perched, above the city, atop a stone sculpture protruding from the ridge of a skyscraper—a sculpture of a vulture.

The final caption reads, “He breathes deeply, filling himself with the night—and steps forward and falls—as he fell when he was a child—as he will fall for the rest of his life.”

DC / Dick Giordano (via)


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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