With DC’s new collaboration with Webtoon, Batman: Wayne Family Adventures, to say nothing about recent episodes of HBO Max’s Titans, the idea of Batman as a father figure is being explored more. We’ve all heard the jokes about how Bruce Wayne is obsessed with collecting orphans, but what drives him to do this? What kind of a father is Batman, and how has it affected his children?
Bruce Wayne as a Son
Like most of us, Bruce’s understanding of fatherhood comes from the men who brought him up, in this case Thomas Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth. Was Thomas Wayne a good father? It’s hard to say because most of our understanding of him comes from flashbacks of his murder. The remainder of his portrayals come from Bruce’s flashbacks, and the perspective there is limited because Bruce was only eight years old when his father died. (The Thomas Wayne from the Flashpoint universe is a real piece of work, but since he comes from a different reality than our Batman, we can mostly discount him.)
Regardless of how good or bad of a father Thomas was, he was murdered before Bruce ever got a chance to truly know him. Our understanding of our parents evolve over time, with them become more human in our eyes the older we get.
Now imagine if that evolution stopped when we were children. Thomas Wayne died well before Bruce had a chance to get to know his father as a real person. He wasn’t old enough to have an understanding of his father’s dreams, struggles and doubts. Imagine how this shaped Bruce Wayne’s understanding of what it means to be a father.
After Thomas died, we can all agree that Alfred Pennyworth stepped in as Bruce’s father. While its indisputable that Alfred is a phenomenal father figure, he’s also an unconventional one—albeit for a good reason. Bruce Wayne wasn’t a conventional child, after all. Young Bruce didn’t want bedtime stories, piggyback rides, or trips to theme parks. He was trying to harness the darkness within him and use it to prepare for his eventual career as Batman. Depending on which incarnation of Alfred we’re dealing with, he either helped Bruce with his training (television’s Gotham), or tried to get him to change course (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm or Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy). Either way, Alfred was by Bruce’s side as a supportive father.
Still, this does beg an important question. Should Alfred have stopped Bruce from becoming Batman? That would likely take an entire novel to answer, but truthfully, I don’t think Alfred could have stopped Bruce, regardless of whether or not he wanted to.
Bruce Wayne as a Father
Bruce’s relationship with Dick Grayson has been an interesting journey. Dick is the first child Bruce took in, and as a result there was a lot of “learning on the job” when it came to fatherhood. This may surprise even longtime Batman readers, but in the original version of Robin’s origin (1940’s Detective Comics #38) the Dark Knight only intended to use the Boy Wonder for a single mission, then return him to the circus afterwards. Of course, later retellings tweaked things to show that Bruce wanted to give Dick Grayson a home and family.
In 1943’s Batman #20, Dick’s crooked Uncle George temporarily gains custody of the lad, causing Bruce to give a heartfelt speech to a judge deciding the case: “Dick is like my own son! I’ve even changed my will so that in case of my death, Dick will get my entire fortune! Your honor, I…I love that boy! Please don’t take him from me.”
It was one of the first acknowledgements of the Dynamic Duo’s father-son relationship, as most early stories described them as “guardian and ward,” “best friends,” or “brothers.”
The dissolution of Bruce and Dick’s partnership is too deep of a topic to fully explore here, but suffice to say it was one of the biggest fractures in their relationship. There have been a few versions of the split across multiple continuities, but a common factor is that once Dick is no longer Robin, his relationship with Bruce is shattered. This is because so much of Bruce’s sense of self is tied into his identity as Batman, leaving almost no room for Bruce Wayne. Therefore, if Dick is no longer Robin, where does he fit into Bruce’s life? Jason Todd asked a similar question this season on HBO Max’s Titans.
Being Robin and being Bruce’s son go hand in hand, which is why Dick had a strong emotional reaction to seeing Jason Todd in his old costume. It felt like he was being replaced as Bruce Wayne’s son. Dick confronted Bruce in Batman #416, but the Dark Knight was not able to communicate how he was really feeling. Frustrated Dick kept on pressing him, until Bruce emotionally broke down and admitted that he took Jason in because he missed Dick. The revelation was a minefield that neither man knew how to deal with.
In Tales of the Teen Titans #50, Dick asked Bruce why he was taking steps to officially adopt Jason, but had never tried to adopt him. “I was probably too young and too obsessed in beginning my career as the Batman,” Bruce said. “I guess I never gave it much thought back then. And then, before I knew it, the Boy Wonder became a man and I realized how much time had slipped by me. But believe me, I couldn’t have loved any son more.”
For years, Bruce struggled to relate to Dick now that he was a grown adult. He knew how to train a hero and relate to Dick as his younger partner, but Bruce made a lot of missteps navigating his relationship with him as “the grown son.” Every time their relationship improved, something would happen to set it back. When Bruce chose Jean Paul Valley to replace him as Batman during “Knightquest,” Dick was hurt.
The two finally worked through their feelings in 1994’s Robin #13, and nothing was off the table. Bruce admitted to Dick that he had made mistakes and hadn’t handled his transition to adulthood the way he should have. “A distance grew between us,” he shared. “I left so many things unsaid. I handled it all wrong. But that’s the way it always is, isn’t it? Between fathers and sons.”
As time went by, Bruce learned how to be a better father and ultimately would make things official. In Batman: Gotham Knights #17, Bruce nervously stammered as he finally, awkwardly offered Dick adoption papers. The Dark Knight has always had trouble sharing his emotions, but here, it’s likely something that a lot of fathers can relate to.
When Bruce took Jason in, he was expecting it to be a similar experience to the one he had with Dick. However, he quickly realized that Jason was not Dick. The second Robin famously had unchecked anger that Batman struggled to channel into something more productive. In Batman #425, Bruce realized he couldn’t let Jason continue to be Robin. Then in Batman #426, he told Alfred his private doubts: “I think I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
Every parent has their moments of doubt, and it’s easy to feel like you’re in over your head when dealing with a rebellious teen. To make things worse, balancing Bruce’s duties as Jason’s surrogate father with his responsibilities as Batman was far from easy.
It would be an understatement to say that Jason’s murder (“Batman: A Death in the Family”) destroyed Bruce. Bruce felt like he failed as a hero, and more importantly, failed as a father. Years later, child protective services investigated the circumstances behind Jason’s death (Batman: Gotham Knights #42-45) and Bruce was honest with the officers about the guilt he had been carrying.
“I wanted what any father wants for his son,” he tearfully told the investigators. “Hope. Happiness. A future of never wanting or regretting something he could never have again. I just went about it the wrong way. I allowed him to have hope and it killed him.”
For years, Bruce viewed Jason as his biggest failure, even when his former son was revived as Red Hood. Jason blamed Bruce for not killing the Joker and for years their relationship was strained. To Bruce, Jason’s actions as Red Hood were the living reminder of how he had failed as a father, regardless of whether it was true or not. In recent years, Red Hood has lowered the temperature in regards to his lethal ways and has begun to make peace with Batman. But it won’t be a short or easy process.
The arrival of Damian Wayne meant that Bruce had to look at fatherhood in a new way. Bruce had missed most of Damian’s life, and now he was raising a son who didn’t share the same values he did. Dick and Tim were largely on the same page as Bruce, but the Dark Knight struggled to get into his biological son’s head. Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s Batman and Robin did a wonderful job exploring this new dynamic. How much space should Bruce give his son and when should he step in? How do you push your son to be the best he could be while still respecting his boundaries?
Since Damian was Bruce’s biological son, the approach was different. However, Bruce wasn’t entirely done being a surrogate, adoptive or “found” father after Jason.
Over the years, Batman has also taken in Tim Drake, Cassandra Cain and even a troubled youth named Lance Bruner (yeah, he’s obscure). When Bruce sees an orphan who’s as lost as he was after the death of his parents, his instincts are to take them in and guide them. He knows the pain of being an orphan and doesn’t want anyone to go through that alone.
And just think about where Batman’s kids would be if he hadn’t stepped in. Damian Wayne and Cassandra Cain were raised to be killing machines, but thanks to Batman’s influence they have saved countless lives instead of destroying them. Street kid Jason Todd would likely be in prison or worse if Bruce hadn’t opened his heart. And Bruce’s influence extends beyond the children he’s adopted. He’s also served as a father figure to other young vigilantes like Stephanie Brown and Duke Thomas.
Is Batman an unconventional father? Absolutely, but most of his kids are unconventional cases, which makes them perfect for each other. There are times when he’s been too hard on his kids, and there have been times where he’s failed them. But he’s also empowered them, shown them love, and made them into the best versions of themselves. Batman is not the perfect father, but he’s learning and getting better every day. And isn’t that what fatherhood is all about?
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Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.