Into the Heart of Darkness: The Origin of Batman's Dark and Gritty Side

When Matt Reeves' highly-anticipated The Batman opens in theaters this week, it will offer audiences the latest exploration of one of comics' most popular and iconic characters. The tone of the film, based on the teasers and trailers we've already seen, is one that aligns with most contemporary takes on Batman and Gotham, all while taking viewers into the early years of the Dark Knight's crusade. The film is presenting a dark, gritty tale with terrifying villains, stunning violence, and a Bruce Wayne that seems to be so immersed in the mission of Batman that the man himself is little more than his own pain — the kind of "dark and gritty" Batman that fans of comics have come to love and expect. The origin of that tone is associated less with the character's initial appearances, but with Frank Miller's 1986 series The Dark Knight Returns, which is regarded by many to have brought the more mature Batman to prominence. But as a character, Batman's harder edge isn't entirely the creation of Miller — two other works involving the character, Dennis O'Neil's Batman run and Darwyn Cooke's Batman: Ego, helped shift him from "bright to night", and went deeper into the internal conflict at the center of the darkness that Miller brought to the fore. These works not only hold major influence over Reeves' The Batman, but are worth digging into in their own right.

To say that Dennis O'Neil, along with artist Neal Adams, saved Batman isn't an exaggeration. Although Batman was a popular character from nearly the moment of his introduction in 1939, his popularity (and the sale of his comic books) had started to fall by the mid-1960s. The drop was so dramatic that Batman co-creator Bob Kane (as noted in Les Daniels' Batman: The Complete History) once said that DC was "planning to kill Batman off altogether", only for him to get a very brief stay of execution thanks to the 1966 Batman television show, which saw him become a campy and funny version of himself. But by the end of the 1960s, the show was cancelled, and Batman was once again out of favor. Enter O'Neil and Adams. The pair's work on Batman began with Detective Comics #395 in 1969, with a story titled "The Secret of the Waiting Graves." The story almost immediately started the shift away from campy sci-fi and to a more mature, grounded adventure for the caped crusader. The story follows Batman as he investigates Juan and Dolores Muerto, a mysterious and villainous couple who are using Sybil flowers to grant immortality, at the cost of one's sanity. Sure, the idea of flowers granting immortality and also causing madness, and the Muertos' plan to spread their crusade across the world, certainly seems like the sort of fantastical element that would fit in with the campier era of Batman. But O'Neil and Adams very quickly establish a darker tone, as Batman terrifies villains in his pursuit and returns to being a presence that is to be greatly feared. There's even a panel where some goons are seen screaming that Batman is a "monster" and that they've never seen "such a terrifying creature".

This balance between otherworldly plots and the darkness of Batman's vigilantism is seen throughout O'Neil's Batman — and it's a brilliant strategy. While comics could have simply hard-pivoted into a more frightening Batman, O'Neil's decision to combine the darkness with the friendlier and brighter aspects of his strange tales made the shift more palatable. Even in reading it today, it still feels like a natural transition for the character.

As as it turns out, that transition had a destination, which began to make itself clear when O'Neil and Adams brought back The Joker in 1973, after a four-year absence. O'Neil's story restored Joker to the homicidal maniac that remains central to Batman — both to so many of his major conflicts, and the psychological element of his existence. While Batman is the epitome of violence restrained, The Joker fully embraces his tendencies, and is resplendent in the chaos he creates. It makes for complex narrative dynamic, one that lends itself to no shortage of stories, as we've seen by the continued inclusion of The Joker in contemporary comics and films.

Outside of his work with Adams, O'Neil's work with Batman also dug into other aspects of the character, many of which continue to be key to darker portrayals of the vigilante. In particular, Detective Comics #457's "There Is No Hope in Crime Alley", with art by Dick Giordano, delves into the trauma experienced by young Bruce Wayne when he witnessed the murder of his parents. It's one of the most complex and definitive looks at the inciting incident of Bruce's story. The story sees Batman go to Crime Alley on the anniversary of his parents' death and while we see him consumed in his mission of stopping crime, the story brings it down to a much more personal level. He saves an old man from a mugging, stops some kids from stealing hubcaps and, most importantly, goes to see Leslie Thompkins, an old woman who witnessed the murder of the Waynes and was so impacted by the horror that she devoted her life to preventing that kind of tragedy from happening again. It's a story that digs into the larger impact of the Wayne murder and how that night reverberates through Bruce even beyond his vow. It doesn't feel like much of a stretch to say that if it hadn't been for that story (and O'Neil's contribution to Batman more broadly), Miller's landmark work on Dark Knight Returns and Year One would have had drastically different significance, or might not have happened at all.

Decades after O'Neil's work on Batman, another dark and narratively deep take on the character would be released, and would become foundational for contemporary adaptations of the character (including The Batman). Darwyn Cooke's 2000 story Batman: Ego explores the impact of Bruce Wayne's early trauma on an adult Batman in a way that is completely unlike anything else. The story sees an exhausted Batman dealing with The Joker's latest brutal crime sprees, as he pursues one of the villain's henchmen, Buster Snibbs. It's quickly established Snibbs ratted out The Joker to Batman, and tries to escape the wrath he knows is coming. Unfortunately, that escape means death — not only for Snibbs himself, but for his wife and daughter, as he's already killed them to spare them from The Joker's wrath. Snibbs then takes his own life, and a guilt-consumed Batman decides he is going to retire the costumed persona and just be Bruce Wayne. This gets complicated when Bruce becomes haunted by his Batman persona, who helps Bruce realize that the double identity has become a coping device born from his own fear and trauma, and he can't just retire that part of him.

Cooke's approach to the duality of Batman and Bruce Wayne is very literal, as Ego literally depicts Batman as a sort of separate personality, and as Batman and Bruce physically fight over who should have control. Along the way, Bruce's childhood and how that led to Batman's origins are explored, showing just how deep Bruce's trauma (and this complicated split within himself) actually goes. The story ends with it cemented that Batman and Bruce Wayne cannot be separated, and Bruce's internal suffering is the price he pays for the vow he made as a child — the vow not to be a prisoner of his own fear. Cooke's presentation of that conflict is not only fascinating, and allows space for Batman to be a more violent, brutal figure. It makes the argument for Bruce using fear as a weapon in the name of hope — not for himself, but for others.

Ego's impact continues to be felt, not only with Reeves directly referring to it as an inspiration for The Batman (which we can see elements of in the film's trailers), but in contemporary comics as well. Tom King's "Cold Days" arc in Batman #51-57 feels like a natural successor to Ego, as Bruce ends up on jury duty for a case involving Mr. Freeze, and is forced to take a hard look at his Batman persona once again.

A dark and gritty Batman may have come to prominence thanks to Miller, but O'Neil and Cooke's respective works create nuance and layers within that dark and gritty Batman. Both writers offer a soul to the character on which everything else can be built. While both contribute to wildly different eras of comic storytelling, they both present a conflict that has made its way to the heart of Batman — that Bruce, by design, is little more than his own darkness, but is able to use that fact to fuel a larger altruistic sacrifice. Without O'Neil, we probably wouldn't view Batman as the multi-faceted and somber force he is, and the psychology of that force would be deeply lacking without Cooke. As The Batman kicks off a new conversation about how "dark and gritty" the titular character can go, recognizing the heart at the center of Batman's darkness is critical and makes the story from here all that more enjoyable.

The Batman will debut in theaters on Friday, March 4th.