Okay – I shall start with a warning. The following piece may seem a bit mad. Because it is me, The Editor, writing her own version of the Batman origin story.
Why did I do this? Well – it was kind of an exercise for myself, an exploration into a question:
“What exactly is it that makes Batman special?”
And the answer came pretty much straightaway: It is his origin story. What Batfan cannot relate a version of that fateful night in a Gotham alleyway? All of us can close our eyes and picture it, describe it. So I wrote this I think as a test for myself. And if I’m going to be honest, I couldn’t stop myself writing it. It just spilled out of me across the page. So, I thought – go on, share it.
I am not going to pretend it is well-written. In fact, it’s pretty awful. Nevertheless, my message to people who have no experience of Batman is that if you read this and are unmoved by it, then go no further. You will never ‘get’ Batman. If, however, you feel a tug deep inside your stomach telling you that this should never have happened to a little boy, then you might want to go and check out the ‘recommended comics’ section of this site or other such opinions on the internet (of which there are many).
So this is the story of my Batman:
I am here to tell you story. This story is not mine, yet I know it better than my own. It is part of me.
This story really happened. I say this, but have no proof of it. I cannot present you with its witnesses or its actors, but I believe that they existed, once. And though I am sceptical of so many other things – God, UFOs, Kim Kardashian – in this story my faith is absolute. I am a believer.
Everyone loves a beginning, so we tell this story again and again and again. We draw it, film it and animate it, and with each telling the teller changes it – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. It matters not. All that matters is that each of us keeps His story as their own private icon, glowing in the corner of their minds to whisper prayers to. It is the thing that makes Him. In His Genesis, we seek our own.
This story is about the most perfect night that has ever existed and will ever exist. You may think that you have experienced better nights than this, but you are wrong. This night is the night that ends all previous nights and begins all those nights still to come. It is the perfect story, told imperfectly by mere mortals.
Our story takes places in a city – a city that by some archaic spell appears to predate the young country which surrounds it. And because of this impossibility, this city – Gotham City – is the arena where the great stories of humankind are told. In Gotham, people are forced to choose between Good and Evil, and once their side is chosen they must do battle against each other. This is Gotham’s mythical purpose and no-one can refuse the city’s will. Everyone must fight. Even an eight year-old boy must fight.
The story happens on a cold and starless night. This is nothing exceptional – Gotham is often cold because it faces the stormy Atlantic coast, and it is always starless because heaven gave up competing with Gotham’s brilliance long ago. So the perfection of this night is due, not so much to the misty atmospherics, but to the family it involves; three wonderful individuals whom no good person in their right mind would ever wish to harm. And their names are Thomas, Martha and Bruce Wayne.
The Wayne family are not exceptional because they are wealthy as there are many such families in Gotham. Instead, the Wayne family are special because they care. They do not believe that money is an indication of a person’s worth. Instead, they believe that the poor – of which there are also many in Gotham – have as much right to live in the city as any of its billionaires. Their faith in this is so great that they give most of their personal wealth away. The Wayne Foundation funds schools, hospitals, orphanages and refuges. Wayne Industries employs many of Gotham’s citizens in good, steady jobs. Furthermore, Thomas Wayne is a doctor who provides medical care to citizens with no medical insurance for no charge.
So the Wayne family battle on the side of Good. But they can only save those who wish to be saved. At the time of our story, hope is fading in Gotham and will go on fading for many more years to come. As a result, no one wants to live in the city any more, not even the Waynes – they moved way out of the city into a gated manor a century before. So the once-lovely places which housed Gotham’s debutantes and professionals are now overrun by drug addicts, thieves and prostitutes. Places like Park Row, which was lined with trees and three storey brownstones when Thomas Wayne was a lad, but is now a slum so bad that Gothamites nickname it ‘Crime Alley’.
But I digress. What you really need to know is that there is a movie theatre in Gotham – a special one. Most movie theatres in the city are much like the ones we all visit – huge multiplexes that project full-colour cynicism onto our lowing heads. The theatre in this story is very different. All it plays are old films in black-and-white; the kind of unbelievable rubbish where the good guy always wins. In short, it is a movie theatre of the true romantic. On this night it is showing a prime example of its schlock-in-trade – a 1920 feature starring Douglas Fairbanks called ‘The Mark of Zorro’. This movie doesn’t even have sound. Watching a silent movie is no easy thing – it forces the audience to make links between the images and the flashcards of dialogue, kind of like a moving comic book. You need imagination and intelligence to love a silent movie.
On this night, there is only one person under the age of forty in the whole of Gotham who wants to see ‘The Mark of Zorro’, and that is Thomas and Martha’s eight year-old boy, Bruce. Now, what can I tell you about this little boy? Well, I could tell you that he is his parent’s pride-and-joy, but what normal person doesn’t think that of their child? What I can say is that the continuation of the Wayne family line rests with this boy, so what little hope and joy remains in Gotham rests with him also. Thomas even gave the boy a name to reflect hereditary purpose; a name taken from Scottish clansmen who fought to the death to protect their beautiful highland home against the English.
So Bruce brings joy, but he brings his share of concern also (as all normal children do). He is the most brilliant in his class, outstripping his schoolmates in all subjects – academic and physical – and whilst his parents are proud of his achievements they worry that Bruce is over-focussed for a little boy. He forgets to play. So when their quiet, beautiful and far-too serious little boy puts down his textbook and brings them an advertisement for a movie he wants to see starting at eight p.m., Martha and Thomas jump up to get ready. Martha – however nice a lady she is – is still a woman with too much money and so she overdresses. She applies make-up and pins her hair up in curls and clasps her favourite pearl necklace round her neck. Thomas laughs and tells her they aren’t going to the opera. It’s just a film, is all. Martha knows all this but she wants to look nice for her boys. She wants to shine for them. And so she does – the light from the sidewalks bounce off her glossy hair and jewellery, sparkling through their journey to the city.
They arrive at the movie theatre. A silent movie – is Bruce sure about this? Of course he is – when was their boy ever anything else? And so they hand over their twenty dollars and get three little pink stubs in return. Popcorn? Yes please. Thomas and Martha laugh because the tub is almost bigger than Bruce. Isn’t this a lovely place? So quaint, so clean – it must be like going to the movies during the thirties. They tell their son to slow down – he doesn’t have to run, it’s not going to start for twenty minutes yet! But Bruce wants the best seats in the house. He has studied the seating plans and knows the perfect spot – Row L, seats 10, 11 and 12. But Bruce needn’t have worried. The theatre is empty except for a few enthusiasts, dreamers all, just like him. They turn to watch a small, dark-haired, blue eyed boy running down the aisle, dragging his daddy by the hand. And each of them of them smiles because that’s how they feel inside – excited, because they are about to watch the Greatest Movie Ever Made.
If you asked Thomas and Martha what the movie was about they couldn’t have told you. They didn’t watch one bit of it. Instead, they watched Bruce, sitting between them in his grey sweater and short pants. God, how he laughed! Proper giggles that shook his little body all over, choking on his popcorn, with Martha slapping his back to free his airway so he could go laugh some more. Each time Zorro lunged forward with his sword, Bruce did so too. Each time Zorro punched someone, Bruce did so too. And each time Zorro kissed Lolita, Bruce pretended to vomit. No more homework, no more seriousness, Bruce was finally acting his age, wishing to be what every other eight year-old boy secretly wishes to become – a fighter for justice with a secret identity and a mask and also a cape because the cape is the best bit, isn’t it daddy?
Of course it is, Bruce. A hero’s not a hero without a cape. Remember that.
So on this night – this cold and starless night – the Wayne family leave the movie theatre to walk to their car. No one could possibly be as much in love as Thomas, Martha and Bruce are, right at this moment. They are the perfect family – united, warm and strong. Everything is going right, finally. Thomas has some assistance in the practice so he can spend more time with his family. Martha’s going to talk to Thomas when they get home because she wants to try again for another child. Her miscarriage was a bitter blow to them both, but it’s no use being scared anymore. Family is a risk worth taking, isn’t it? And Bruce – well – there’s something special about their boy. He’s going to be a brilliant – a scientist, they decide. And he’ll have a family of his own one day. Can you imagine being a grandparent? Yes, yes they can. Because, as Thomas jokes, no woman could resist Bruce’s fencing with an imaginary sword as their son is demonstrating right now.
Yes – this is the perfect night; the night to define all others. But the real Gotham-type of perfection is yet to come.
There is an alleyway opposite, only a short one. It is late and it is cold – better to go through that than have to walk round the block. Take mommy and daddy’s hand Bruce. We’re all going to cross the road now.
Bruce is excited still, doing what all excited children do – he plays. ‘Take that! And that!’ He is the loudest thing in a very quiet neighbourhood, perhaps so loud that he attracts attention – it is hard to say. What I can say is that this is a neighbourhood where you don’t want to attract attention. It is a place where the cruel and the lost people live, where guns rule and where life means nothing. It is a place so bad that Gothamites have nicknamed it ‘Crime Alley’.
There is a man in the alleyway. The Wayne family do not see him approach. Perhaps he was waiting for them – who knows? It matters not. All that matters is that he has a gun and that he wants something the Waynes have. Money, jewellery – that kind of thing is at the forefront of his mind, but the truth is that the man has come to rob them of something else, the most important thing they possess. He has come to rob them of their family.
This man – this dishevelled, shaking man – lunges out of the darkness at the Wayne family. He shouts at them. Thomas and Martha hand over their wallet and their purse in terrified compliance – anything to make the bogeyman go away. But he is still shouting. It is impossible to make out what he wants because they do not want to listen. After all, who wants to be told that they are about to die?
Something glints. It is the distant street lights bouncing off Martha’s necklace as she reaches down to shield her eight year-old son, who stands behind her, rigid with terror. The man with the gun goes for Martha’s neck. His fingers grab the necklace wrapped round her beautiful skin. Thomas instinctively holds his arm out – not a terrifying gesture, just a defensive, understandable one.
and then another BANG!
Bruce watches as pearls escape from the man’s grasp. Up, up into the cold and starless night they fly, comet-like, breaking free of the madness until the awful gravity of Gotham brings them crashing down to earth once more, till they land – dirty and worthless now – onto the blood-soaked paving stretched before him.
Bruce looks down. He sees the face of his mother, lips contorted in a crimson-painted grimace and her skin deathly white. That image will now always be the face of death to him. He sees his father, slumped, left hand reaching out forever in vain to the woman he loved, so dearly. And Bruce drops to his knees and sobs.
The man – who will later have a name – leaves now. In some stories he is mournful, in others he is not. It matters not. All that matters is that he did it. He murdered Martha and Thomas even though he did not have to. It is a crime without sense, without reason and it happens to a family who should be immune to it. They have all the money in the world to prevent things like that happening to them; to find the name of the man who did it and bring him to justice. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, this crime goes unsolved for fifteen years or more. And this is because no one is safe, not in Gotham, in the place of Good vs. Evil.
So, a new orphan now raises his head, looks up to a cold and starless sky and says:
‘This is my fault. I let this happen.’
But before we have chance to tell the little boy that there was nothing that neither he, nor anyone else could have done, a voice speaks out. It is a terrible voice, old and filled with mythic purpose. Gotham City speaks to Bruce and it says:
‘Yes, you did – this is your fault. You let that man get away to murder again. And he will never stop – none of the criminals like him will. For they are a superstitious and cowardly lot, hell-bent on killing people, other mommies and daddies just like yours. There wil be other orphans now, Bruce, and all because of you.’
And it is hopeless to try to intervene; to scream out and tell the little, broken boy that this is a lousy lie, a ruse to make him join the eternal battle; because Bruce has now made his mind up to become a martyr. One day, he will wear the Cape and Cowl so that no-one else has to.
Thus the night ends, a night of perfect Good and perfect Evil; a truly Gotham night.
It will be a long time before Bruce comes of age and takes his rightful place. For now the screams of Gotham must continue, the killing never ends. And in the meantime Gothamites will look up to the cold and starless sky and cry ‘God! Why have you forsaken us?’ But it matters not. All that matters is that one day their prayers will change into a yellow light that shines through a cold and starless night, to rouse the One True God of Gotham from his temple deep below the ground:
‘Our Batman, who art in Gotham, cowl-ed be thy name…’