Ask Chris #257: The Head-Canonical Batman Family
Q: Someone asked me this one, so now you have to do it: who, in your "head" "canon," do you consider to be the necessary members of the Bat-family? - Benito Cereno, via Tumblr
A: Finally! I've been waiting for like five years for someone to ask me a question that would allow me to go into a needlessly in-depth explanation of how some part of Batman worked, and now, after all these years, it has happened for the very first time.
As for this particular question, it's an interesting one, and if you'd like to see Benito's answer to it, it's up on his Tumblr. If you do go look at the list, though, you'll see the problem in trying to answer it. After 75 years of collecting sidekicks, butlers, teammates and assorted hangers-on, Batman has a whole lot of people in his extended family. And if I had my way, I'd keep 'em all.
I mean, that's Grant Morrison's big First Truth of the Batman, right? That he's never alone, that there was always someone there with him, supporting him and helping him. And as much as there are readers out there who vastly prefer the noir-inspired take on Batman where he's a lone vigilante in a gritty urban hellscape taking it on himself to wage a one-man war on crime, Morrison's interpretation is something that the comics bear out, too.
It obviously took a while for everyone to show up, but Robin was a very early addition to the story, showing up about a year into it in 1940, and Commissioner Gordon makes his first appearance right there in Detective Comics #27, exactly one panel after Batman himself.
So yeah, the Batman Family is a pretty big part of the story - so big, in fact, that it's actually a pretty unwieldy group to have kicking around with keys to the Batcave, especially once you start getting into teams like the Outsiders and the Club of Heroes.
But at the same time, I like almost all of those characters, and even the ones I don't like usually have enough potential to be part of a really solid storyline that they're worth keeping around. It makes things pretty tricky, and that's before you start getting into the bigger problems of alternate versions. Is Terry McGinnis a necessary part of the Batman Family? Is Carrie Kelly? It's complicated.
But that said, if we're talking about allies and supporting cast members --- not villains, not the detectives at the GCPD, and not the teammates on the Justice League, just people who would regularly show up in Batman comics --- and we've only got a few spots --- let's say five --- here's who I'd choose, in order of how important they are to the character.
First up: Alfred Pennyworth.
I get the feeling that picking Alfred as the single most necessary character in Batman's supporting cast might not be the most popular idea, but on the other hand, he's been upgraded into that role in almost every major Batman project in the past thirty years.
The Christopher Nolan movies, Batman '89, Beware the Batman, a good chunk of Batman: the Animated Series, and comics like Zero Year and, yes, Earth One put him in first and foremost, and it's not difficult to see why. On a purely technical level, it gives Batman someone to talk to, or to discuss a case --- and having someone, anyone else hanging out in that giant mansion and its anti-crime basement does a lot to humanize Bruce Wyane, especially if the person hanging out has a tray of tea and sandwiches.
More than that, though, Alfred serves an incredibly vital function within the story. He's a living reminder of Batman's parents on a very real level --- he was a member of their family, too, after all --- and as a result, he can serve as a surrogate father in a very interesting way. I've written before about how part of the childish fantasy of Batman was that his parents die, but he still gets to have a parent, and it's a parent that he's actually the boss of, so that he can stay out all night no matter what his new dad says, and while that might be a little reductive, it's also a pretty accurate description of their relationship.
Plus, having Alfred around helps to smooth over a lot of the questions that are going to crop up if you plan on following the idea that Bruce Wayne left Gotham City to train and returned years later to become Batman. I mean, yes, you will also raise the question of, "Wait, so his parents died and he was raised by his butler?!" but, y'know, we all have stuff to deal with.
Coming in at #2, Dick Grayson.
So here's the problem: My initial thought for the #2 spot was, of course, Robin --- not necessarily a specific character in the role, but just Robin, the idea, the back half of Batman And...
But, being a member of the generation that I am, the Robin that I actually wanted to put here was Tim Drake.
Thing is, you can't have Tim Drake without Dick Grayson. You can't really have Jason Todd without him, either, and you definitely can't have Damian, at least not without losing a lot of what made those characters work in the first place. They all exist as reactions or counterparts to Dick, and by definition, that makes him the most important of those characters.
Dick Grayson is Batman's first success story, the kid who doesn't have to become Batman, because Batman is already there to help him. He is the Batman family, and more than that, he's a character that we've seen grow up in this strange and wonderful world, filling the roles of surrogate son and partner. So whether he's filling that role as Robin, Nightwing or Spyral's Agent 37, there's a connection there that's always going to mean something for Batman - and it's going to help shape all of his other relationships, too.
At #3, Tim Drake.
He's the best Robin. Deal with it, haters.
At #4, Commissioner Gordon.
First of all, if you don't think Gordon beating up Flass in Year One is the hypest thing that has ever happened in comics, then we're going to have a hard time even relating to each other as human beings.
Second, I love Jim Gordon, and a lot of that comes from the way that he reinforces ideas about Batman on that same metaphorical level that Dick and Alfred do. He shows us Batman's necessity, the idea that a good man working within the system still can't change it without someone working outside of it to help. They're two people fighting the same enemy from different sides, but without Batman, Gordon wouldn't have been around for his half.
And finally, rounding out our top five, Barbara Gordon:
Again, this is another one where I'm perfectly fine if she's around as either Batgirl or Oracle, but if Dick represents the Batman's victory as a person, Barbara represents Batman's victory as an idea. She's the one who joins up without a motivating tragedy, without a dark origin, just a sincere desire to help and a realization that she can do it in a way that doesn't involve following her father's footsteps into the police. She's the aspirational one, the one who reminds us, like Superman, that you just need to take the step of doing something good to be like your heroes.
To be honest, she might actually be my favorite of Batman's sidekicks. Pretty much everything I like about Tim Drake is something that originates with Barbara, from the emphasis on brains to the wholly altruistic motivation --- but the idea of "Robin" just barely squeaks ahead based on how much of the legacy is tied into Batman. Showing up in 1940 gave the pixie boots a head start, you know?
Still, Barbara's a phenomenal character, something that's evidenced by her tenure as Oracle, where she was completely reinvented and still remained vital and engaging --- and extremely prescient, given how much the Internet would rise to prominence in the decade after her re-creation.
That's my top five, the supporting characters that I'd consider to be the most absolutely necessary for Batman's ongoing story, but really, it's just the start of things. Catwoman would definitely slide in at #6, and after her, there's Superman, Leslie Thompkins, Huntress, Lucius Fox, Cassandra Cain, Ace the Bat-Hound, Bat-Mite, Knight and Squire, Chief O'Hara, and a dozen more besides.
Whether they're strictly necessary or not might be up for debate --- I'll concede that O'Hara might actually be the least necessary out of the whole group --- but I still want them all, making up a rich and vibrant universe that goes beyond just thematic crime and rocket cars.
Well. Except Harold, I mean. I think we're probably all perfectly fine without a weird hunchback that lives in the Batcave and builds Batman's car. That one's a little too weird, even for me.