In Gothic: A Romance, a 1990 Batman story from the pages of Legends of the Dark Knight, Batman finds himself battling a satanic monk who attempts to kill everyone in Gotham City, and offer their souls to the devil in exchange for immortality. His plan rests on Gotham’s specific architecture, utilizing a series of cathedrals designed to place the stress of their weight up towards heaven. Batman eventually stops him, but this poses an interesting question: If the cathedrals of the city point up to heaven, then where is Gotham? The answer of course, is hell.
Gotham City is Hell.
Superhero fiction is known for a variety of tropes: the costume, the tragic origin, the secret identity, the hyper specific gimmicks, sidekicks, rogues galleries, internal monologues about justice, and, perhaps most importantly, anthropomorphized cities. Every hero, however big or small, has their own turf, their own neighborhood, that exhibits a certain otherworldly quality that ebbs and flows with the hero’s personality. Superman has Metropolis, Green Lantern has Coast City, Green Arrow has Star City. Starman has Opal City. All of these fictional locations play off the hopes, strengths and impossible fortitude of their heroes.
Superman is the Man of Tomorrow, the Last Son of Krypton that calls Metropolis home. Metropolis is named for being the epicenter of a culture, literally the “mother city” for the first true comic book superhero. Metropolis in the comics is a mix of sci-fi promises of the future, and sleek art deco that captures the particular forward thinking optimism of Superman.
But Batman has Gotham, with a Bat Signal, shining in the night sky to scare away criminals.
More than any other superhero, Batman and Gotham frame themselves as hellish, tragic, doomed even. Gotham is rooted in the occult, its streets are forever plagued by not just supervillains but realistic urban violence. If Superman says he wants to fight for truth, justice and a better tomorrow, what does it mean when Batman says he’s the King of Hell?
A BRIEF HISTORY OF GOTHAM CITY
Gotham in the 1940s
Despite Batman first appearing in 1939, Gotham City was not mentioned until Batman #4 and Detective Comics #48 in 1940 and 1941, respectively. Originally, Batman lived in New York which gradually differentiated itself into Gotham City. Even so, the early years of Gotham and Batman were still very much in the mold of the pulp heroes that came before. Early Batman adventures were urban crime dramas, filled with murders, twists, dark and stormy nights. Batman and Gotham were still very much influenced by The Shadow and New York, despite the more colorful superhero tropes Batman exhibited.
Gotham City as it began was unremarkable because it could have been any city with violent crime, and indeed a great deal of its universal appeal and live action depictions bank on the idea that Gotham City could be your city. It needn’t be anything specific or else that relatability fades. But Gotham is Batman’s city, and Batman is a part of the fabric of Gotham. What eventually drives Gotham to be narratively distinct is connecting it to Batman’s mission. Meaning, for Gotham to be more than just any city, there needed to be something powerful and consuming about it that paralleled Bruce Wayne’s mission. Like all superheroes, it needed to be part of his personality, and that personality is something terrifying, all consuming, violent, and enduring.
The phenomenology of Batman is telling here. That is, how the experience of seeing and describing Batman guides our understanding about the rest of him and his world. In the original pages of Detective Comics, Batman strikes fear not only into the hearts of criminals, but perhaps also his readers. Littered throughout these early stories, Batman is described as a “weird” and supernatural figure. In Detective Comics #33, his origin is contextualized by calling young Bruce’s vow “strange,” the bat bursting through his window is “an omen,” his actions depict him as “a weird figure” racing through the night.
If that was not enough, well before Grant Morrison’s Gothic, criminals believed him to be the devil as he leaped down on them.
If Batman was an ominous, demonic figure, a man who devoted his life to war on all crime and play into the superstitious and cowardly nature of criminality, then Gotham needed to parallel that superstition, with dark alley ways, horror infused criminals and a strange, ever lasting nature to match Batman. In short, Gotham needed to be Gothic.
The tradition of the American Gothic “concerns itself with madness, Puritanism, guilt, and the abhuman” (Julia Round, 2014), and American Gothic writers even find themselves infused in the mythology of Gotham. For example, Arkham Asylum is a reference to H.P. Lovecraft, Batman: Gotham by Gaslight echoes the late 19th century literature most popularly associated with the Gothic tradition, and even Edgar Allen Poe himself appears in the miniseries, Batman: Nevermore.
Once placed in this American Gothic canon, Gotham City can be understood as positioned on a precipice of madness, with each of Batman’s rogues being a personification of extreme degrees of mental instability. Every character has a psychological pathology. And of course characters like Killer Croc, the Penguin, and Man-Bat channel elements of the abhuman and even body horror. At the same time, Batman finds himself driven almost entirely by guilt. His inability to save his parents, his obsession with preventing that from happening to anyone else, his outlook on the death of his allies, all build towards the picture of a man fighting madness, driven by guilt and perhaps turning mad himself. As Nietzsche says, “Battle not monsters, lest ye become a monster.”
Gotham in the 1970s
As Batman comics evolved, this invocation of American Gothic tropes emerged slowly over the latter decades of the 20th century. This found its most prominent early expression in Frank Robbins’ Batman. Frank Robbins brought Bruce Wayne to the heart of the city and ushered in an era of realist urban crime that also intertwined Batman’s identity to the city. Notably, Batman and the Batcave are below Wayne Manor, on the outskirts of Gotham. In Robbins’ approach, Bruce leaves the manor behind and chooses to take up residence in a city penthouse. By night, Batman battles crime on the streets, but by day Bruce Wayne transforms into an advocate for victims of violent crime in the city (Batman #217) and lobbies politicians to help social funding (Batman #219). The turmoil of Gotham becomes his entire focus.
The shift here made Gotham the epicenter of crime in the same way Metropolis is thought to be the epicenter of futurism. For the first time, a story presents itself where the struggle of being Batman is focused on a city where crime never ends, where problems can never be solved. If Batman will never stop fighting crime, Gotham will never stop generating it. The legacy of this approach is so lasting that it becomes the bedrock of No Man’s Land (1999) when Gotham is declared beyond saving, and left to fend for itself in a Hobbsian state of nature.
Robbins’ run also introduces Man-Bat, a villain who transforms into a humanoid Bat-Creature. As these stories unfold, Bruce loses touch with his own humanity, making every waking moment about doing Batman’s job to fight crime until he finally faces his own inverse.
Man-Bat is ultimately the story of a being married to a monster, of obsession taking over humanity. Frank Robbins and Man-Bat ushers in an era where that doomed obsession, and the ugliness it brings out, is how Batman comes to understand his own mission.
This is a truly gothic narrative, akin to Jekyll and Hyde as the forces of the city and the inner lack of humanity manifests into a consuming force, a city that will never be satisfied and a mission to do nothing but serve the city. Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers built on this notion by introducing corrupt city official, Rupert Thorne, who is himself haunted by ghosts, and over a decade later Jim Starlin wrote a take on Batman that tried to focus on violence, serial killers and the unrelenting nature of crime specific to Gotham.
However, despite the new narrative potential found in Frank Robbins, and his successors in the form of Englehart, Rogers, O’Neil, Adams, etc. Gotham still hadn’t fully formed. True, Batman mused on his relationship to the city, but what did the city look like? What was its history? What did it feel like to traverse the streets? For that, we have to turn to none other than Frank Miller.
Gotham in the 1980s
Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and David Mazzucchelli transformed Gotham into something mythical, a force of nature akin to Batman. Year One and The Dark Knight Returns are bookends in Batman’s career, his origin and his retirement. In both stories, Gotham is a city under siege. Famously, Bruce walking the streets of Gotham prior to becoming Batman is a scene taken right from Martin Scoresea’s Taxi Driver, itself a story about lost humanity and a society’s decadence. It’s an image of violence that mirrors Bruce waking these same streets in DKR, as if nothing has changed.
The Gotham depicted in the pages of Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli is densely populated, with neon signs and a mishmash of buildings that fold into themselves to create something that isn’t just the most iconic fictional comic book city, but one that’s feels as eternal as its hero. Gotham is hopeless, it’s closed off, it’s beyond us all and yet surrounding us all the same. Gotham is a city where the sun never shines, and hope is washed away in a mix of tears and rain.
In Year One, James Gordon enters the city from the trains on the ground, and Bruce Wayne flies in from above. In both cases, however, they see the same thing. It’s not a place to live, to raise a family, to find yourself. It’s simply hell.
The Dark Knight Returns rather than painting this gritty, boots on the ground perspective instead ties Gotham and Batman into co-constitutive forces of nature. Gotham finds itself in the midst of a record heatwave, while the Bat claws its way free from the shell of Bruce Wayne. Once Bruce answers that call by donning his cowl again, thunder rips through the sky and a cleansing rain pours down, as if all the tension of the populace was coiled up by Batman, and Batman alone.
But what makes Gotham this den of evil? Why is corruption in this city’s nature? Why does it specifically consume us more than any other city? Crime does not end for Superman, either. But Metropolis doesn’t drag us into the abyss.
Gotham in the 1990s
There are of course many canon explanations for Gotham’s neverending evil, with the most famous being “Dark Knight, Dark City,” where Gotham was founded by cultists who summoned the bat demon, Barbatos. This particular piece of mythology became a constant throughout later years of Batman. Grant Morrison, in particular, not only brings Barbatos back but roots the Colony of Gotham in the occult, plagued by witches and worshipers of Barbatos in The Return of Bruce Wayne. Ram V’s current run on Detective Comics sees Barbatos taunting a slightly older Bruce Wayne for the arrogance of his vow. But occult magic or not, Gotham has always been presented as a place where goodness dies. Even in the most extreme circumstances, Gothamites remain Gothamites.
In 1999, the Batman line of books was thrown into the event “No Man’s Land,” in which an earthquake ravaged the city, and it was declared beyond saving by the federal government. If Gotham City is hell, it was at the very least a hell with clear rules, and a structure that resembled ordinary society. The urban crime and political degradation of Batman comics were extremes for any depiction of an American city, but the core idea that you could walk these streets just like New York, or even Metropolis, remained intact. With “No Man’s Land,” this approach dramatically changed by turning Gotham in a Hobbsian state of nature, where power was concentrated into territories ruled by whoever had access to the bare minimum means of survival. The entire Bat-Family spent this year battling not only super crime but the desperation of a populace that lacked food and water, and in that desperation turned to violence and inhumanity.
“No Man’s Land” is also famous for its lack of Joker stories, until the very last arc when things begin to return to normal. With the city in chaos, to the point where even calling Gotham a “City” is generous, there didn’t seem to be much point in Joker doing anything.
“No Man’s Land” represents an idea of Ur-Gotham, a proto version of the city at its pure, base level. If Hell is a place where the wicked are punished for their transgressions, Gotham is a place defined by and created exclusively for wicked transgressors, punishment not always guaranteed. The 70s Batman brought us serial killers and a realistic depiction of attempting to fund local organizations to curb the incentives for crime, to no avail. 80s Batman saw a depiction of wide scale corruption from the top of the police and mayor’s office all the way down to the streets. But “No Man’s Land” proposed it’s not simply the social structures, it’s not the powerful and wealthy, it’s not even the bedrock of the city that corrupts. It’s the people. Gotham is a place no one understands but the Gothamites. And when everything is taken away from them, they still fuel their own averace.
This is perhaps most evident in Batman #566 in which Superman, the philosophical counterweight to Batman living in the hub of the future, Metropolis, attempts to help clear some of the earthquake damage. Batman warms him that Gotham is different, that the battles here are not like Metropolis, but Superman tries his best anyway. He takes down the Mad Hatter’s territory in a power plant and battles Mr. Freeze so that basic utilities can be restored to the citizenry. However, as soon as he’s successful in his mission, the engineer aiding him turns the power plant into his own territory, recreating the cycle. Superman is left in shock, admitting he doesn’t understand how best to help people in Gotham and decides to leave Hell back to its true ruler, Batman.
This concept of Superman, or indeed anyone who isn’t Bruce Wayne, attempting to fix the city from an outside perspective is a constant throughout the modern era of Batman. The trouble ultimately becomes that by the late 90s, Gotham’s history, its people and its occult past, have become so entrenched that any attempt to bring basic altruism or progress to the city seems jarring at best, and impossible at worst.
Gotham in the 2000s – 2010s
In the year 2000, we had reached a rebirth of Gotham City, dubbed “The New Gotham Era.” After “No Man’s Land” was over, after the city was rebuilt, DC inadvertently created the opportunity to explore what exactly Gotham’s future could be, and why anyone stays here knowing its history. Every major writer of the Batman line from this era in one way or another depicted a Batman that has made the city his to control, whether that be through Wayne Enterprises secretly earthquake proofing all the buildings it owns, or Batman manipulating all the forces of crime in the city during War Games. Stories like Murderer/Fugitive saw the city turning against Batman, and characters like Hush and the recently revived Jason Todd tested just how much control Batman truly has over Gotham. If the previous decades were the story of how Gotham mirrors the obsession of Batman, the rebirth of Gotham was a time to ask if perhaps Batman is himself just a pawn in the city’s all consuming nature.
In the miniseries Gates of Gotham and the New52 story arc, “The Court of Owls,” Gotham is depicted as a city so rooted in madness that Batman is not so much a resisting force as a predestined cog in schemes far older than him. Gates of Gotham depicts Gotham’s founding by three families: the Waynes, the Elliots, and the Cobblepots. Their shared influence and corruption leads to the betrayal of the architects of the city, the Gates Brothers, and wedges a multigenerational feud between the families. “The Court of Owls,” on the other hand, establishes a vast criminal conspiracy dating back generations that Batman could never fully stop and who have resources far greater than Bruce Wayne could ever dream of. In both these stories, writers Kyle Higgins and Scott Snyder debate how much one can truly fight the forces of evil in Gotham, whether the city takes your agency away or if you are duty bound to resist it.
Scott Snyder’s era of Batman work is perhaps most defined by this resistance spirit that feels uniquely optimistic coming off the heels of a paranoid 2000s Batman and a ruler of hell 90s Batman. In both his New 52 and Detective Comics runs, Snyder uses Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson to cast the city in darker shadows than we’ve perhaps ever seen, with every attempt to shed light in the darkness being met with more degradation and infestation. Bruce’s plans in the opening arc of the New 52 Batman is essentially to remake the city, to propose a massive overhaul in both its existing infrastructure and finding a way to grow behind its murky, bloody past. This is immediately met with the introduction of the Court of Owls, revealing itself to be hiding the old architecture and belonging to the city’s mythology far longer than Batman.
Snyder’s version of Bruce is perhaps more human and more underwhelming than most depictions of the character. He’s sometimes afraid, he fails constantly, and his own mythology around Batman is made so much smaller in comparison to what he fights. Thus, Snyder’s Batman is always on the ground, always trying to stay rooted in some action or some problem. Like, for example, building an independent power grid that helps sustain Gotham’s own grid in Batman (2011) #12. Dick Grayon’s Batman in the story “Hungry City” is decidedly the opposite, always looking for a vantage point from above, not unlike Superman. Dick’s perspective on the city is of someone who was not born here, forcing him to confront darkness and challenges he simply does not understand.
Thus, the Gotham presented in the late 2000s and into the 2010s introduces more characters born and raised in the city. The most prominent of these characters for Scott Snyder’s work is Harper Row, who not only lived her whole life in Gotham but grew up under Batman’s reign, giving her a perspective of what law and order, what justice in the city looks like for someone who lives and breathes a city terrorized by crazed clowns and crocadile monsters. That spirit remains for much of the 2010s, where Harper is joined by other characters like Duke Thomas who is also co-created by Scott Snyder, and Claire Clover, co-created by Tom King. Both become crime fighters in the city, but maintain an aesthetic and loyalty to Batman. Claire in particular becomes interesting here as her powers are much closer to Superman, but she’s molded by and trusts the approach Batman offers her. King even gives a critique of Superman from Claire and Batman’s perspective that channels the same disconnect found in the “No Man’s Land” issue discussed above.
HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE
As Gotham’s past grew more complex and weaponized on behalf of Bruce Wayne’s personal crusade, a new question has started in the 2016 DC Rebirth era: why does Gotham City deserve Batman? Ontologically, the various origins of Gotham from Barbatos to the colonial Wayne Family destined a young Bruce to be “the Prince of Gotham.” In a way, you could argue it’s less about “deserve” and more about fate. But that explanation doesn’t stop us from asking for a justification, a reason beyond just the acceptance of our circumstances. How do the people of Gotham perceive Batman? And while Bruce may have deemed the city under his protection for all of time, do the citizens agree with him? Do they want him?
Tom King’s Batman #1 (2016) is a powerful argument for what makes Batman special, in the best and worst ways. The issue opens with a plane being shot out of the sky, heading for Gotham. Batman tries to stop it from crashing, but in any other city, Superman or Green Lantern would catch the plane and that would be the end of it. But this is Gotham. This is hell. People don’t just arrive here, they’re cast down in fire and brimstone. What good is Batman against a plane? Sadly, not much as he prepares to kill himself to steer the plane into safety only to be saved by a new pair of young superheroes who call themselves “Gotham” and “Gotham Girl.”
The story set in motion here is part of King’s larger Batman epic that explores whether Bruce Wayne can ever truly be happy. However, sprinkled throughout is a study of what exactly Gotham has done to deserve Batman and what it means for Batman to simply punch crime in the face. When Batman is saved by “Gotham,” he proves to be just another pawn in the larger schemes of the city. But that never seems to diminish his power, in fact he seems to think that’s exactly what the city itself is.
In Batman (2016) #12, Batman writes a letter explaining what transformed his grief into willpower. He took his father’s razor and attempted sucide, but in that moment between the flesh, the blood and the blade, he realized everyone in Gotham was caught in the same trap as him. Everyone in this city was caught between life and death. And in that moment, he drops the blade to proclaim not only that he is Batman, but that he is suicide. King’s Batman, like Snyder’s, is one that feels a kinship with the people of Gotham. He’s not simply their king, he’s one of them. And that ability to see everyone caught between life and death is what drives Batman to make the city a better place, because everyone is trapped here and everyone needs to overcome something.
This modern approach to Batman and Gotham’s relationship does not discount how much control and influence Bruce Wayne has over the city, nor does it ignore how much larger in scope and chaotic the city itself is. However, it turns these multitudes into an opportunity. Gotham is the place where everyone is forced to prove they are strong enough to survive another day.
As King’s run continues, we see various anecdotes of the city’s process and its people. In the arc, “Cold Days,” when Bruce Wayne participates in a jury deliberation, we hear testimony after testimony as to the nightmarish reality of living in Gotham: children with guns, lost family, a nihilistic acceptance of being trapped in hell.
Famously, Jean-Paul Sarte’s play, “No Exit,” declares “Hell is other people.” Meaning, living in the world requires being thrown into the chaotic mix of other people’s lives and accepting how that limits your own freedom. If Gotham City is hell, then the shared understanding of all Gothamites, the reason Batman declares himself king of hell and why he feels we are united in suicide, is that hell is a place where everyone is at each other’s mercy. Batman must then be a force that reflects that mercy, reflects our ability to choose a better way in a world we cannot escape. Gotham does not shy away from trauma, from fear or crime. It creates it in massive quantities. But all that means is that Gotham gives us the opportunity to be brave. Batman is a reflection not of being doomed in Gotham, but of how Gotham’s obsessive need to break us is a chance to stand back up.
Gotham in the 2020s
Gotham is a city always faced with its own death and rebirth, as the King Era ended with Bane’s take over of Gotham leading into the James Tynion Era which ended with Scarecrow’s take over. This was not the first time Bane ruled the city, nor will it be the last. And if it’s not Scarecrow in “Fear State,” it might be Riddler in “Zero Year.” For the last three decades, Gotham has been under siege and came out the otherside, in part reflecting that eternal spirit of overcoming but also bringing to mind that little bit of doubt, that tiny bit of fear that no matter how much we overcome, there’s yet another challenge to face.
However, today the latest chapter in the story of Gotham City is its fall from grace. Generally speaking, there have not been many versions of Gotham that ever feel like a modern metropolitan hub of culture and civilized society. The death of the Waynes and the birth of Batman is a tipping point where crime can go no further before someone has to push back. But even by that point, Gotham is far from safe.
Gotham City: Year One enters this space by proposing not only that Gotham City is hell right now but by giving us a chance to see how hell came to be born, what souls had to be sold off and what exactly the heaven we’re juxtaposed against looked like.
Directly inverting Batman: Year One and Gordon’s declaration that Gotham is no place to raise a family, we finally see a snapshot of what we might hope Gotham to be. This is far from the story of everyone’s experience in Gotham, but the idea proposed here that some might have prospered in Gotham is a chance to see what we’re missing, a chance to see why we deserve Batman’s reign and to ask if we’re better off for it, that perhaps we do deserve Batman punching crime in the face because of the world we lost.
In the opening pages of “The Court of Owls,” Batman tells of a regular column that runs asking Gothamites to fill-in the sentence “Gotham is…”. Answers range anywhere from “damned,” “cursed,” “bedlam,” or “murderous” to the names of Batman’s rogues, like “Two-Face” and “Joker.” Among those various answers, there are also some variations of “Gotham is Batman.”
Following the formation of Gotham City as an occult, gothic refuge for the damned in the latter decades of the twentieth century, the 2000s New Gotham Era was allowed to ask the question of what Gotham’s future is and what are the upper limits of Batman’s control over this madhouse, in part due to its effects on his own sanity. The New52 and Rebirth eras then returned to a coupling of Batman and Gotham in more direct ways, not by proposing who wins out between the magic of Gotham and the spirit of Batman. Rather, it asked if Batman and Gotham balance each other, that whatever Gotham might be is also whatever Batman is. And that, in the end, is precisely what a city in comics is designed to do, to reflect and contort around the idea of who the hero is. Batman is Gotham because Gotham needs a Batman. And Gotham creates Batman in the same way Batman creates Gotham.
Bruce Wayne is the prince of Gotham, and he inherits a declining kingdom. But Batman is the King of Hell, and that constant decline is exactly the condition under which someone might need a Batman in the first place. While a historical look at all the horror Gotham has faced could then paint a nihilistic picture of the city, one that shows nothing gets better and that we’ll always be hounded by a psycho in a Bat Costume, the more appropriate reading, I think, is that Gotham is a place that’s always trying to improve. The city is beautiful in its ability to reflect the very essence of Batman: a person who turns trauma into willpower. Gotham is a place that throws challenge after challenge at you, and in the end you are still here, still living in the city and seeing the bat signal high in the sky. In the end, we don’t deserve Batman because we’re all trapped like rats, we deserve Batman because he shows us that the city is something we can grow to love, to protect and to understand collectively.
Gotham is all of us.
Batman (2016) #6