A key part of the cycle of superhero comics is finding a replacement. No vigilante can fight for decades without eventually needing a break. Sometimes it’s due to death. Sometimes it’s in an Elseworlds tale with different circumstances. Sometimes it comes from a well-earned retirement. No matter what though, given a long enough career, it’s inevitable that a superhero’s mantle will be passed on to a successor. It’s happened with Captain America, Superman, and too many others to name. However, there has never been a more contentious line of succession than the passing of Batman’s cape and cowl.
The notion of an alternate Batman has been around since the Golden Age. A villain would dress as the hero for a single issue or Bruce Wayne would need a substitute while on vacation. Eventually he allowed his daughter and ward to lead the day as Huntress and Robin after retiring. Yet it’s only since the 1990s that the “passing of the torch”-style story has really caught fire. The importance of Batman has become central to the mythos of DC Comics, and when Bruce Wayne’s back was broken in “Knightfall”, an entire event was centered on the concept of who might become Batman. This has been repeated in stories like “Batman R.I.P.” and “Endgame” in which there must be a Batman following some traumatic event.
Now in the pages of Mother Panic: Gotham A.D., Violet Paige is attempting to fill the role of hero in Gotham City as she finds herself on an Earth without a Batman. That new series, alongside all of these other stories, raises the question of... what exactlymakes a great replacement for Batman? It’s not simply a matter of who can do the job, but a matter of who can actually fill this role that means so much to both the characters in and fans of DC Comics. In order to better understand why Batman matters, it’s worthwhile to consider his many replacements, and who wore the cape and cowl best.
Azrael was the first notable hero to assume the role of Batman in the modern era, and he’s also the most notable failure. Throughout the “Knightfall” cycle, it was made out that Batman was really being replaced and it was increasingly obvious that wasn’t the case. Jean-Paul Valley was introduced as a confused, but noble man. However, his violent tendencies led him down a dark path that only grew darker once he called himself Batman. While the character has been redeemed since relinquishing the role to Bruce Wayne, his failure is still the most notable element of his arc.
What this reveals about Batman is that characters must be able to do more than “the job”. Azrael was able to capture criminals and keep Gotham City safe. The same could be said of other imitators like Jason Todd or Hugo Strange. Yet their violent methods make them clearly unfit for the job. Batman is not just a vigilante; he’s an ideal. There’s too much to the role for it to be treated like any other masked man who fights crime. Batman has to protect the innocent and follow a strict code of values. It’s not simply that he doesn’t kill, but that he looks after the citizens of Gotham City and provides them hope in the darkest night. That’s where Azrael failed, following only an obsession for justice when Batman must stand for so much more.
There have been Batman allies who stand for something more than a simplified rendition of justice though. Most recently Jim Gordon stepped into the role of Batman following the events of “Endgame” in which Bruce Wayne was left without any memories of his crime-fighting life. Gordon is as great of a friend and confederate as Batman has found in Gotham City. They both share core beliefs on the nature of justice and the value of human life. Together they have supported one another’s separate careers to protect the city they love. However, Gordon never truly gelled in the role of Batman. He was a good hero (and remains one, even without a robot suit), but he was never truly Batman. Gotham City residents and Batman fans alike both sensed that this was a temporary fix, a band-aid that couldn’t fix the situation. That’s confirmed when, at the end of Gordon’s story, Bruce Wayne must return to save the day.
This cycle has been seen in other stories with close Batman allies like Damian Wayne in the future and Tim Drake in the present. None of them are capable of filling the role of Batman for long without suffering some critical form of failure. Unlike the ugly examples, the differences here are not as obvious. What makes people who follow Batman incapable of leading in his role? It’s an intrinsic value of inspiration. Batman is more than a man; he’s a symbol. It’s not enough to do the job well and understand what it means. Batman has to inspire the people of Gotham City, providing hope and a way forward. Those intangible elements of leadership and optimism aren’t in every person, at least not in the same way they are in Bruce Wayne. It speaks to his incredible drive and striking charisma that he has been able to craft a dream that has saved the world at times and helped others step up and become heroes too.
When Bruce Wayne chose his first sidekick, he chose very well. Dick Grayson, more than any other Robin, best represents the continuation and future of the Batman legacy. He possesses both Batman’s core values and the personality to lead and inspire others. There is a key difference though as Dick Grayson is a dramatically more optimistic and open person than Bruce Wayne. That is a feature though, not a flaw. Dick is the person capable of taking what Batman represents and moving it forward, beyond the darkness and pessimism that seems to haunt Bruce and all of his greatest stories. Rather than viewing Batman as a terrible necessity, he views the role the same way he did as the very first Robin: An aspirational teacher and protector.2comments
Following Batman’s death in “Batman R.I.P.” and Final Crisis, it was Grayson that took up the role and continued in it as part of Batman Inc., even after Bruce Wayne returned. His stint in Detective Comics and Batman & Robin remain some of the very best Batman stories since “Knightfall” when Azrael first assumed the role. Dick Grayson struggled under the weight of what came before, but never faltered in his many jobs. He was a great mentor to Damian, a brilliant detective, a stalwart defender of the innocent, and he kicked a fair amount of butt. It’s this period in Batman comics that made it clear there’s no better replacement than the original Robin.
Dick Grayson, even more than Bruce Wayne, knows what Batman stands for and is capable of. He’s the man who grew up studying and knowing Batman, and he’s the man best suited for the role. While it’s unlikely that Bruce Wayne will ever be gone for too long, when he does take a hiatus, we hope to see Grayson provide more great Batman stories in his stead.