Between the imminent release of the open world Gotham Knights video game and the launch of Tom King and Phil Hester’s Gotham City: Year One, Batman’s city is suddenly very much in the spotlight. And while we imagine you’ve heard of Gotham City, how much do you actually know about it? Where did Gotham City come from? Who are its founders? And why is it called that? If you’ve ever wondered, consider this your essential guide to the city.
Gotham’s True Beginnings
While Batman has been fighting crime across city rooftops since Detective Comics #27 in 1939, he wouldn’t technically be doing it in Gotham City until Batman #4 in 1941. That’s the first time that Batman’s city is given its own name in the comics—before that point, Batman was apparently operating in New York. (This was a couple months after Batman stopped using guns in his early appearances. So next time someone tells you Batman used to use guns, you can tell them, “Well, only in New York.”)
Interestingly, Batman #4 isn’t the first comic book appearance of a place called Gotham City. That distinction, by just a few scant weeks, goes to Fawcett Comics’ Wow Comics #1, as the name given to the home of the hero Mister Scarlet. Even after DC acquired Fawcett’s characters in the 1970s, though, Batman and Mister Scarlet have never discussed this. Like all other Fawcett characters up until the New 52, Mister Scarlet, when mentioned at all, was said to operate in Fawcett City.
So, what gives? Did Bob Kane and Bill Finger look over at Wow Comics and crib notes for building Batman’s world? Probably not. Gotham is much older than either of these 1940 usages, going all the way back to the 15th century. The literal definition is a “goat home,” derived from Old English, a fitting name for a village of goatherds. But what does that have to do with the Gotham we know today?
As early as the 1400s, there were English folktales of “The Wise Men of Gotham,” the villagers in a sleepy goat herding town who were to be visited by the king. Royal visits were known to be expensive and burdensome, especially by small towns. So, in order to expedite the king’s journey and minimize the damage of his stay, the men of Gotham devised a plan to act as crazy and stupid as they possibly could. The hope was the king would then be convinced to move on as quickly as possible. By convincingly feigning their stupidity, the men of Gotham were indeed very wise.
In 1807, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” author Washington Irving recalled this tale and applied the name of Gotham to New York City as a way of describing its own deceptive brilliance. In time, “Gotham” would become a nickname for any major metropolitan area, much the same way as “Metropolis” is used to describe any big city. By 1940, calling a place “Gotham City” was equivalent to calling that place “Any City, USA.” But with the phrase’s basis in New York, and the great flamboyant fools who have come to define it, Irving might be particularly satisfied with the usage of Gotham as applied to Batman’s world.
The Land Before Gotham
That’s why Gotham is called “Gotham,” extrinsically. But if you’d like to know the history of Gotham from the citizens’ own perspective, well, that’s a different story.
The history of the island where Gotham now stands is uncertain at best. It was once home to the Native American Miagani people, first named in Batman: The Cult and explored further in the time-traveling adventures of Batman in Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne. In a bit of circular history, the Miagani people came to revere the bat due to the intervention of Batman himself, who aided in their fight for survival against a relatively young Vandal Savage. The Miagani remained in Gotham until Jonah Hex’s day in the 19th century, but are now considered extinct—though the cult leader Deacon Blackfire claims to speak for them today.
In the 2006 Shadowpact series, the strangeness of Gotham City in particular is accredited to the island being the burial tomb of an immortal warlock whose spirit calls himself “Doctor Gotham,” his dark presence driving the very foundation of the city built upon his resting place to madness. This account may be considered apocryphal, though. Perhaps there is a Doctor Gotham, but it may be a stretch to give him credit for the entire city’s direction just by proximity.
What Gotham historians do agree upon is that the city as we know it today was founded by Dutch settlers in 1609, who originally called the settlement “New Rotterdam” (an allusion to New York’s own early settlement name of “New Amsterdam”).
The 1800s are when Gotham begins its growth into the city as we know it today. Spearheaded by four founding old money families—the Waynes, the Kanes, the Elliots and the Cobblepots—architects such as Cyrus Pinkney and Bradley and Nicholas Gate were commissioned to define the unique style of Gotham City’s skyline. (For more information on this time period, consult Batman: Gates of Gotham.) All the while, a secret cabal of rich families which may well have included these founders was taking root beneath Gotham to keep this burgeoning American jewel a playground for the rich and powerful social elite. They called themselves the Court of Owls and would remain only legend until driven out of hiding by Batman centuries later.
The Broker, a real estate agent to the stars of supervillainy, gives us another account of Gotham’s history in Batman: Streets of Gotham #4. The 19th century represented the peak of Gotham’s prosperity for all its citizens. At the time, it was known as “The Wonder City,” it was a place with a heavy manufacturing and industry base that guaranteed enough jobs for all, and a booming entertainment industry of amusement parks, zoos and museums made it a friendly home to families. But as industry moved elsewhere and the factories begun to close, it was the business of crime that filled the void. And all those abandoned parks and warehouses are the places that Gotham’s criminal element call home today.
An Age of Heroes
As crime took hold in Gotham City and the wealthy elite became more disconnected from the common Gothamite, heroes would rise to mete out justice ignored too often by an increasingly corrupt police force—like the original Green Lantern, Alan Scott, and Dinah Drake, the first Black Canary. Even the Justice Society of America would briefly call Gotham home before settling permanently in New York. But Gotham’s greatest champions remained the Wayne family, whose charitable work and philanthropic programs always strived to keep their home from submerging completely into urban darkness.
As we all know, the Waynes’ dream of a better Gotham was nearly ended one night in Crime Alley, when a gunman murdered Thomas and Martha Wayne on their way home from a night at the movies with their young son Bruce. Since then, Bruce Wayne has nobly continued the work of his parents, despite the many outlandish rumors about what he gets up to after dark.
For the rest of the story, make sure to follow Gotham City: Year One. We didn’t even mention Detective “Slam” Bradley… but they will.
Gotham City: Year One #1 by Tom King, Phil Hester, Eric Gapstur and Jordie Bellaire is now available in print and as a digital comic book.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.