Thursday, April 5, 2012

Gotham Knights: A Reflective Essay on the Allies of Batman

For every mentor, there is a pupil.

For every parent, a child.

For every performer, an understudy.

For the first years of his inception, the Bat-Man was established as a lone crimefighter taking matters into his own gloved hands. With the exception of Police Commissioner James Gordon, the character was alone in waging his crusade. Given the choice, many writers felt restricted; one can only go for so long with a character as solitary as Batman and not have other characters with which to have him play off of.

Sure Batman interacts with his villains, allowing readers and fans a chance to see personalities emerge and interact. However, the rogues only work to emphasize Batman in some way, be it his detective skills, his combat prowess or his dark, tortured mannerisms.

But what about when the mask is dropped and his guard is down?

Shouldn’t Batman be granted with refuge rather than only being able to express his character through the connection to evil and villainy?

A war on crime is a war first and foremost. And no war is fought by a single soldier.

They’re fought by armies; forces on either side of right and wrong ready to contribute their strength and support for the common goal of victory.

In reality, Bob Kane and company felt it was necessary to bring in younger readers in the hope of broadening Batman’s appeal as much as possible. They felt that while children may not be able to relate to Batman himself, much less BE Batman, they could see themselves fighting ALONGSIDE Batman.

It was in this theory that the world’s first comic book sidekick was born.

Before we delve into a handle of the key costumed sidekicks, let’s not forget those allies that have aided Batman’s crusade both at home, in the board room and within the Police Department.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge them.


 No one understands and loves Bruce quite like Alfred Pennyworth.

Loyal to the end, the faithful Wayne family butler has cared for and tended to Wayne Manor and all her fluctuating inhabitants from the beginning.

Alfred is a man of the highest honor and, in my humble opinion, seems to be one of the very few people whom Batman has the most unmitigated respect for. He has stood by his master’s side unwaveringly, retrieving the young boy in the aftermath of Thomas and Martha’s murder and watching on while their son made his bed side vow to wage war on criminality and evil.

There’s almost a touch of regal sadness in Alfred; for all his support and faith in Bruce’s goals, he can’t help but mourn the life that Wayne has chosen for himself. And while he would never dream of speaking out of turn or ill-will of it, there certainly are moments where one can see the cracks in Alfred’s heart.

His expertise spans decades worth of experience; from his time in war as a combat medic to his subsequent service as an agent of British Intelligence to his artistry in the preparation of fine dining and his skills in mechanics, Alfred is an valuable asset both to Bruce Wayne and his crime fighting alter ego.

Even when the chips are down, Pennyworth will not hesitate to step into action, such as when he took up arms in the form of a double barrel to provide a final deterrent from Bane gaining access to the Batcave during the “Knightfall” story arc in the comics.

Robins may come and go, but Alfred is an ally that no one can replace.

Following the deaths of his parents, it becomes quite clear that Bruce, despite his usual reservations towards socialization and interactions, eventually grows to form bonds with those closest to him as a means of creating a surrogate family to fill the void of the one stolen from him.

Alongside Alfred, James Gordon very much represents a dual-surrogate father to Batman and his youthful sidekicks.

While Alfred provides necessity on the home front, Gordon is very often depicted as a valuable part of Batman’s operation in the realm of Gotham City’s civil authority and legal law. After all, Bruce is an intelligent man; enough so to know that having someone he can trust on the inside of the law would prove far more beneficial over being public enemy number one for the entire force.

Gordon and Batman share a common bond in their belief that the law, while coveted and mandatory, isn’t being fulfilled properly given Gotham’s swarm of corruption and chaos. While they have a passion for the system, they’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s broken to the point that Batman’s presence is more needed than reviled.

Like Alfred, Gordon is a man that commands Batman’s respect. At the end of the day, Wayne can hang up his cape and cowl and slip into the masquerade of a jet-setting playboy or a benevolent businessman. But as Bruce observes on several occasions, Jim still continues the fight 24/7, day and night, whether Batman’s at his side or not. It’s a job they both have devoted themselves to, but for Gordon it’s his entire life.

As a result of their bond, Gordon is of course prey to just as much tragedy as Batman. He’s watched his daughter be confined to a wheelchair. He’s suffered the death of his wife Sarah at the hands of the Joker in the final months of “No Man’s Land.”

Yet through it all, he endures just as Batman does; in his own words, “Barely, but surviving.”

Rounding out the trio of strong male role models that Bruce has created for himself, there’s corporate powerhouse and Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox.

A business graduate, Fox is said in corporate circles to have a ‘Midas Touch’ in his ability to take fledging or poorly managed companies and resurrect them into massive conglomerates. Throughout the majority of the mythology, Lucius is set up as the acting CEO of Wayne Enterprises, running daily operations while Bruce remains more or less a mere figurehead (allowing him free reign to operate as Batman without the weight of total responsibility for the corporation).

In more recent incarnations, the character has grown into an even larger role in the grand scheme of things having been given access to the knowledge that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Prior to knowing the secret, Bruce and Lucius’ friendship was tempered at best, with Fox growing frustrated and concerned over everything from leaked funds to disappearing equipment prototypes that Wayne was utilizing for crime fighting under his nose.

Now that Lucius has been allowed into the big picture, he has been recreated as a tech and weapons expert meant to aid Batman’s crusade; a ‘Q’ to Wayne’s ‘Bond.’ I’ve always grown up on a Lucius Fox that DIDN’T know, so coming to terms with and accepting Lucius being aware of the secret has been something that I’m slowly but surely achieving.

It certainly makes sense; just as he has an inside man with Gordon in the department, Batman having an in with Fox and the resultant access to everything from satellite surveillance to military grade vehicles and power generators makes perfect sense. This also works to split the responsibilities somewhat between Lucius and Alfred.


Of course for all of Bruce’s surrogate fathers, there’s also his one surrogate mother.

Dr. Leslie Thompkins was once a medical colleague of Bruce’s father and a close friend to both his parents. On the eve of their murder, it’s Leslie who arrives on the scene first to console the traumatized Bruce before his being taken to the precinct.

And just like Alfred, Gordon and Lucius, she represents a voice of reason for Bruce to take into consideration. More often than not she’s proposed to be more critical of Bruce’s decision to be Batman than anyone else, disproving of his vigilantism and feeling as though she failed to be an adequate role model that could’ve made a difference.  Over time she’s come to understand and respectfully tolerate his choice.

Outside of providing therapeutic and medical support to Batman, Thompkins is a strong-willed civil proponent and a major advocate for Gotham City’s impoverished population. She’s regularly depicted operating a free clinic in the bowels of Gotham’s seedy Crime Alley, tending to both criminals and victims alike. During the “No Man’s Land” story arc, Leslie operated the only clinic in Gotham with a strict ‘No-Violence’ policy, providing healthcare and shelter to any and all that needed it. In several incarnations, she’s also known to occasionally accompany Bruce whenever he visits the site where his parents were murdered.

It’s hinted here and there that, given their mutual bond of being privy to Bruce’s double life, a romantic relationship might have occurred between Leslie and Alfred though it’s never been confirmed.

With this foundation of support, it’s clear that Batman has a system in place that can work to fulfill any and all needs.
But sidekicks were still inevitable. For all their sage advice, there’s only so much Alfred and Lucius Fox can do in the actual field.
The concept of the sidekick dates back to early literature, with one of the first being Enkidu, who became an ally of the fabled warrior Gilgamesh. The concept plays upon the logical idea that a heroes’ crusade cannot last indefinitely and that at a certain point, the mantle must be passed on along with any and all teachings to the next generation.

A more humorous explanation of the terminology stems from the character being created out of a need for comic relief; therefore a ‘sidekick’ is often a lackluster character who is “kicked to the side” or ignored in favor of the more important hero.

From Tonto to Dr. Watson, sidekicks and allies have become a staple of narrative fiction in the case of heroes, filling a void where the hero is allowed to express other distinct sides of their personality, ranging from insecurities and doubts to paternal instincts and personal priorities.

What I mean is that if Batman remained on his own, he could most assuredly take care of himself. But when you throw a sidekick into the fray and concoct a scenario where, say, the sidekick is kidnapped or trapped or threatened, you’re given the opportunity to raise the stakes and explore Batman’s psychology as far as what lengths he may possibly go to or what emotional depths he might plunge into now that someone ELSE’s life hangs in the balance, rather than just his own.

Created in 1940, Dick Grayson became Robin after his trapeze-performing parents were murdered in a staged accident created by mob extortionist and hustler Tony Zucco.

What instantly connects Bruce to Grayson is the striking parallel between the deaths of Dick’s parents and the murder of Bruce’s. More than any of Batman’s future allies, the bond is strongest because of this parallel, making Dick a sidekick unlike any of those after him.


Visually, Robin is a very fascinating choice of character. Here you’ve got an ominous man cloaked in the grays and blacks and deep blues of a horned demon and his squire is a pint-sized sprite of red, green and yellow. It’s a very odd dynamic and yet somehow, it actually works. It’s funny; I can’t seem to put my finger on why it works as well as it does. Even so, it works as a lyrical dichotomy. After all, while one suffered tragedy in a world without Batman’s presence, the other came to experience loss at a time when vengeance could be (and was) rightfully claimed.

In the majority of continuity, Wayne never found the true murderer of his parents after that night. But in multiple interpretations, Grayson was given the chance to face his parents’ killer and overcome him, avenging their deaths not through vengeance, but justice. While their origins bind them together, this fact fundamentally separates Batman and Robin. They’re different characters with different outlooks on how things should be done. As a result, Robin is more happy-go-lucky figure than Batman, capable of crime fighting without the weight of the world on his shoulders.

There’s a sense of fun and adventure that comes with Robin’s presence that isn’t as driven and obsessive as Batman’s purpose for doing the job. So when the dynamic duo operates together, it’s usually in more bombastic, bold and action-packed storytelling than when Grayson is absent.


Eventually, the differences between the two come to outweigh their similarities, leading Dick Grayson on the very rare path in comics where he was allowed to grow up beyond the Robin mantle.

From Boy Wonder to self-made man, Grayson eventually adopted a new mantle dubbed Nightwing.


What’s interesting here is that Nightwing very much plays as an entirely different character despite being Batman’s first partner. Usually, we’re never given the chance to see a character in comics at such polar opposite points in his or her life like this.

When you see Nightwing, you see the faint glimpse of the Boy Wonder still inside. Even as a grown man, the occasions where he once more teams up with Batman seem to call back to the nostalgia. But it’s richer, more complex; after all, this is an older Dick Grayson. He’s more confident in his role without being arrogant. He’s taken what Batman has taught him and he still values it, but not so much that he feels the need to still be tethered to Bruce. Nightwing is an ally, but an ally that considers himself an equal. In several ways, he’s earned the right to consider such a status.

In the midst of Batman and Robin’s allegiance, another creative decision was made; this time to target a female audience that dreamed of having a heroine in the Batman universe to look up to.

In the 1950s this attempt was made with the creations of Kathy and Betty Kane, also known as Batwoman and Bat-Girl respectively. It’s clear that the inclusion of these female characters was to act as a response to the observations of Dr. Frederic Wertham, a noted youth psychologist who suggested that the bond between Batman and Robin went a step beyond teacher and student, implying homoerotic undertones to their relationship. One can clearly see the roots of such a claim; two men living alone in a mansion, gallivanting around the Gotham nightlife in garish costumes without a single indication of a female presence in their lives.

Funny though; it’s ironic that Dr. Wertham didn’t seem to mind overlooking the romantic interests Batman had shared with Vicki Vale or Julie Madison at the time. A pretty glaring omission I’d say.

Eventually, The Kane’s bowed out of continuity thanks to Editor Julius Schwartz, who decreed they were too silly to withstand longevity in Batman’s pseudo-serious dramatic tone. Eventually they were fully retconned and aborted following “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” however interestingly Betty Kane returned as a character called Mary Elizabeth ‘Bette’ Kane, who continues to appear in current continuity as the heroine Flamebird.

Despite their exit, the attempt was made once again in 1967 and this time, it stuck with Barbara Gordon; Commissioner Gordon’s daughter.

The character was created out of stimulation from “BATMAN” television producer Bill Dozier, who wanted DC to create a female character that could be used to help sell ABC on the idea of a third season.

Originally conceived as a clever choice for a Policeman’s Costume Ball, Barbara’s self-created Batgirl persona was put to the test in her “Million Dollar Debut” in the pages of Detective Comics #359, where she fights to intervene an attempting kidnapping of Bruce Wayne by the villainous Killer Moth.

Barbara far exceeded the original Batwoman and Bat-Girl in terms of popularly; her civilian role as head of the Gotham City public library with a doctorate in library science created a healthy role model that young girls could look up to; one that demonstrated that even in the male-dominated world of Batman, a woman could be intelligent, confidence and self-reliant.

This idea of a strong role model is carried even further, albeit through tragic circumstances, in Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke,” where the Joker shoots and paralyzes Barbara from the waist down.

In many cases, this could certainly seem to spell the end of Barbara’s crime fighting career. If the character were any less of an individual, it would have.

But despite her inability to don the cape and cowl, becoming a paraplegic was nothing more than a minor setback.

Falling back onto her honed intellect and knowledge with computer systems, Barbara eventually overcame physical limitation and adversity to become Oracle, an information broker invaluable to Batman’s operations both at home in Gotham and abroad. This new alter ego, created by Kim Yale and John Ostrander, rewards Barbara with an opportunity to be even more critical for Batman’s success than her time spent as Batgirl.

This demonstrates the powerful message of overcoming disability to achieve greatness, which personally rings echoes of the efforts of late “Superman” actor Christopher Reeve, who fought to push the boundaries of paralysis and stem cell research in the final years of his life following a crippling equestrian accident.

In many ways, Barbara remains one of my personal favorites among the sidekicks.

Following Grayson’s departure, the Robin mantle was vacant. The vacuum was apparent and even the most cynical of readers could feel the need for it to be filled by another Robin.


Enter Jason Todd, initially created in 1982 before being revamped in 1987 following “Crisis on Infinite Earths.”

Jason represents all of the things that Dick Grayson wasn’t initially. He’s headstrong, ambitious, outspoken. Like a wild bronco, Batman felt he could break and tame the young homeless degenerate enough to forge a new Boy Wonder for himself, which he decided upon catching Todd stealing wheels off the Batmobile (truly anyone capable of doing so had skills worth investigating).

In many ways, Jason’s assuming of the mantle seems to echo the age-old concept of absolute power corrupting absolutely. One could even cite Lucifer himself; an angel who felt the need to take advantage of his own power rather than acting subservient to God. In costume, Jason is a powerhouse. But it consumes him, turning him volatile.

In one instance, it was suggested that he intentionally allowed a drug dealer to slip from a ledge, plummeting to his death. In another, he goes half-cocked on a kiddie porn ring, injuring criminals beyond the point of Batman’s intended interrogation and jeopardizing weeks’ worth of planning the sting through sheer impulsiveness.

Long story short, the character was a snot in the words of then-“Batman” editor Dennis O’Neill. He talked back to Batman, he copped an attitude and he repeatedly flew solo without his mentor’s approval.

A complete 180 from early Dick Grayson.

He treated crime fighting as if it were a game.

In the end it was this very outlook that saw to his demise when, in a search for his birth mother that brought him to Ethiopia, Jason is beaten into an inch of his life by the Joker before being caught in a fatal explosion.

Jason had the edge and resolve to be Robin, but what he had in aggressive passion he lacked in focus. He couldn’t truly honor the responsibility of being Batman’s sidekick. Blindly charging into a situation was a tactic Batman would never tolerate and Jason paid for that naivety with his own life.

For a while, Batman carried on the fight once more as a lone vigilante.

But fate, and the editing team at DC Comics, had other plans in store.

Batman needed a Robin...and Timothy Drake knew it.

The son of socialites Jack and Janet Drake, Tim is a force all his own.

Despite the affection I have for Grayson, I find Tim to be the most relatable of the Robins and my personal favorite. Superficially, this could be contributed to the fact that he was a Robin finally afforded a rendition of the costume that didn’t include boy shorts and Peter Pan shoes, which were thankfully replaced with form-fit leggings and ninja-toed boots. Designed by legendary “Batman” artist Neal Adams, the look of Tim Drake’s Robin is a striking combination of the classic color scheme with modern flair and versatility.

What makes Tim also stand out is how he managed to acquire the mantle.

As a child, Drake actually attended the circus that the Flying Graysons travelled with. Asking for a photo-op with the trapeze artists, an unknown bond was formed between young Timothy and Dick Grayson.

Years later at the age of nine, Drake witnessed Batman and Robin in action and recalled Robin performing an acrobatic feat that he recognized Grayson using at the circus. Through deductive reasoning, Tim determined that Dick Grayson was the original Robin (now Nightwing) and Bruce Wayne, the man Grayson had been a ward for, was actually Batman.

This showcased a keen insight and intellect that Drake already possessed prior to Batman’s tutelage, which makes me like his a lot as a character; it’s easy to side with and cheer for characters that’re shown to be smart from the outset.

This Robin also held the distinct visual flair of crime fighting with the use of a Bo Staff, which instantly intrigued me as a kid in purely visual terms.

In many ways, he’s the best of both worlds; a common ground between Grayson and Jason Todd.

He’s loyal and cooperative like Dick but self-confident and spunky like Jason. It’s a perfect calibration between the two predecessors and it works in Tim’s favor.
Over time, as Batman’s oldest known masked ally, the mantle of Robin has been taken up by several other characters including Stephanie Brown, Damian Wayne and in ‘Elseworlds’ tales with Carrie Kelly. The character is as much a part of lexicon as anyone and to think ill of the existance of a Robin is an exercise in futility. Sure stories can be told of a younger dark knight or can come up with a means of excluding the Boy Wonder (or any ally for that matter) but Robin has a place by Batman's side that will never be vacant indefinitely.

The Dynamic Duo will always find a way back to one another.

Aside from the core group of his closest sidekicks, Batman has also influenced a number of men and women to adopt and craft their own costumed personalities to join in the Dark Knight’s ongoing crusade.

After all, Batman represents a symbol meant to stir and rally individuals to take action, to take matters into their own hands..

And while his intentions may be for such action to be handled through legal means of proper society, the need for vigilantism and costumed justice will always be present so long as evil reigns in the streets of Gotham and around the world.

Below is the complete collection of Batman’s costumed allies as well as the other alter egos adopted from previously mentioned characters; dubbed the Gotham Knights, they continue to wage war at the beckon call of their Dark Knight general, ready to endure the hardships of combat and tragedy to see the goals and hopes of Batman one day realized.

Some have lost their lives while others fight to prove their worth.

But they are all “Agents of the Bat.”

Richard ‘Dick’ Grayson/Robin I

Kathy Kane/Batwoman I 

Betty Kane/Bat-Girl I 

Barbara Gordon/Batgirl
Richard ‘Dick’ Grayson/Nightwing 

Jason Todd/Robin II

Timothy Drake/Robin III

Barbara Gordon/Oracle

Stephanie Brown/The Spoiler

Cassandra Cain/Batgirl II

Jean Paul Valley/Azrael

Helena Bertinelli/Huntress 

Jack Ryder/The Creeper

Stephanie Brown/Robin IV

Kate Kane/Batwoman II

Damian Wayne/Robin V 

Timothy Drake/Red Robin 

Cassandra Cain ‘Wayne’/Black Bat


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