While Bruce Wayne might be the most famous Bat in Gotham City, he’s far from the only Caped Crusader to ever swing into action. In the 77 years since Batman’s creation, dozens of characters have tried their hands at becoming the Dark Knight, some by choice, some by force, some practically by accident. Let’s take a look at some of the unsung heroes (and villains) who have tried to take up the cowl, and what their contribution to the Batman myth, for better or worse, might be.
During the late ’80s, Bruce Wayne found himself the unfortunate victim of a broken spine at the hands of Bane, as part of the now legendary story arc, KNIGHTFALL. While Bruce was recovering from his injury, he made the (risky) decision to entrust the cowl to a relative newcomer to Gotham, a semi-reformed zealot named Jean-Paul Valley, or, more popularly, Azrael.
Azrael was first introduced into the Batman canon back in 1992 care of a miniseries called BATMAN: SWORD OF AZRAEL where he was predominantly painted as an antihero at best, a brainwashed villain at worse. Eventually, Bruce and Jean-Paul are able to reverse the conditioning instilled in him by the secret cult—The Order of Saint Dumas—Jean-Paul was born into and set him down a better path working as a security guard for WayneTech. Eventually he even began to apprentice with Batman and Robin to hone in on his detective skills.
Of course, this plan only lasted as long as Bruce did and when Bane took the original Batman off the table, it was left to Azrael to pick up the cape and cowl, much to just about everyone’s dismay. This plan went about as well as anyone could hope, with Jean-Paul’s already tenuous grip on his own mind slipping away almost immediately. With some new hyper-violent modifications to the Batsuit, Jean-Paul promptly began a reign of terror in Gotham that even went as far as to leave Tim Drake kicked out of the cave.
Eventually, Azrael’s reign of terror spiraled so out of control that Bruce had to return from his healing retreat and eject him from the role.
Dick Grayson has actually taken up the cape and cowl more than once, but the first time came hot on the heels of Azrael’s disaster. With Jean-Paul removed and Bruce still not physically ready to return to crime fighting after Knightfall, the burden fell onto Dick’s shoulders for the very first time in an arc called “Prodigal,” which hopped through various Bat-titles between 1994 and 1995.
“Prodigal” puts Dick’s concern over walking too closely in Bruce’s shadow as well as his anxiety about not living up to the legacy of the Bat at the very forefront of the narrative, making it easily one of the most formative stories for what would later branch into Dick’s solo adventures in the NIGHTWING ongoing series, which would begin to see publication 1996.
But “Prodigal” was not the last time Dick would find himself thrust into the shoes of his mentor. Nearly a decade later, after the events of FINAL CRISIS and BATMAN R.I.P, Dick found himself in the middle of an all-out war across Gotham for the right to be Batman in Bruce’s place. In BATTLE FOR THE COWL, all manner of heroes and villains crawl out of the woodwork for their chance at a piece of the pie—or the cape, as it were—with Dick eventually, ultimately, emerging victorious.
Eventually Bruce returns from his absence, but unlike with “Prodigal,” rather than completely reclaiming his old identity, he and Dick decide to split their Batman duties with Bruce acting as Batman for the Justice League and Dick acting as Batman within Gotham’s city limits. This arrangement was maintained through several months until the events of FLASHPOINT landed them both back into their original roles.
Perhaps one of the most unusual Caped Crusaders to start stalking the streets of Gotham was Harvey Dent, who took up his very own duo-toned interpretation of the Batsuit during Battle for the Cowl as one of the many contenders to the throne. As you might expect, he was ultimately unsuccessful in his attempted coup. But here’s the interesting thing—Harvey’s desire to become Batman may not be as far from center as you’d initially think.
Jump back to 2006, and you’ll find “One Year Later,” a publishing event that followed INFINITE CRISIS, where some of the DC Universe’s most prominent heroes decided to take a year long sabbatical, leaving the safety of the world entrusted to some very unusual second stringers. For Gotham, one of those heroes just so happened to be Harvey Dent, who was handpicked by Bruce himself to fill in the gaps he, Robin and Nightwing were going to be leaving.
Now, before you immediately think picking Harvey to act as a hero was basically asking for an Azrael 2.0, there are some things you’ll need to understand. Following some corrective surgery to mend the scarring on his face, Harvey had actually shown a remarkable improvement in the way of his psychosis. He was, for all intents and purposes, the DA that Bruce had once worked so tirelessly with.
So, with his Two-Face identity no longer a real threat, Bruce saw to it that Harvey was trained in martial arts and detective work before he flew the coup. Harvey’s time as a protector of Gotham City happened largely “off panel” in the time-skip to Bruce’s return, and during that time he never actually donned the cowl himself, but the groundwork had been laid. Harvey’s eventual return to his Two-Face identity would come not long after the events of “One Year Later,” and then, in Battle for the Cowl, we would see the seeds of a Harvey Dent Batman really bloom. Who could have guessed that training a reformed super-villain could have some serious consequences down the road?
One of Batman’s very first super-villains, the nefarious and psychotic Hugo Strange has always been obsessed with maintaining his self appointed title as the “world’s greatest psychologist.” This obsession, predictably, has led him to zero in on the mysterious nature of the Batman more than once, even going as far as to deduce the identity of Batman’s secret identity as Bruce Wayne.
In the pages of BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHTS #8-11, Hugo manages to infiltrate Wayne Enterprises as a corporate psychiatrist and then use this position to corner Bruce about his secret. To escape this trap, Brue actually manages to trigger a set of post-hypnotic fail-safes within his own brain, causing him to completely dissociate the Batman side of his mind entirely. This kicks off an unfortunate chain reaction within Hugo, who doesn’t seem able to conceptualize the idea that his assumptions about Batman’s identity were incorrect. So he does the only “logical” thing he can see in his position and decides to become the Dark Knight himself. After all, if Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman, then who is there to stop him?
The answer to that question is, of course, Nightwing and Robin, who are left to handle not only a wildly confused and dissociated Bruce, but a mad Hugo Strange who is violently insisting that he, of course, is Batman now. And with his superior intellect and absolute mastery of the mind in relation to the body, he very well could be. That is, if he weren’t completely insane.
In the end, Robin and Nightwing are able to decode the trigger words and mental landmines Bruce programmed into himself and re-awaken his memories, which sends Hugo, unable to accept his own failure, completely over the edge in the process. His sloppy berserker rage makes him easy to take down and cart away to Arkham where he begs his doctors to take the cowl away from him, frantically chanting, “I am Batman, I killed Batman.”
Tough break, Hugo. Apparently, the mantle of the Bat isn’t one size fits all.