Batman, also known as the Caped Crusader and the Dark Knight, is an iconic superhero created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger for DC Comics. Originally appearing in Detective Comics number 27 in May 1939, the character has since attained huge popularity in comic and graphic novel series, cartoons, television series, and movies. In his crime-fighting adventures, Batman faces a rogue’s gallery of ruthless villains, who also have their own complex and tragic back-stories.
The Joker is considered Batman’s greatest archenemy and one of the greatest fictional villains of all time. The first Joker origin story appeared in 1951 and depicts the Joker as the criminal mastermind Red Hood. While robbing a chemical plant, he faces Batman on a catwalk. To escape, he leaps into a vat of acid, which turns his skin white, his lips red, and his hair green. This plunges him into insanity and he adopts the Joker persona. In the 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke, the Joker’s origin story is expanded, as he is revealed as an engineer at the chemical factory who leaves his job to become a stand-up comic. After failing as a comedian, he becomes Red Hood and robs the chemical plant to support his pregnant wife. In 2004, the story “Pushback” added that the Joker’s pregnant wife was kidnapped and murdered by the criminals who forced him to rob the chemical plant. Later variations depict the Joker as the leader of a powerful mob or a gangster named Jack before his chemical disfigurement. One account characterizes him as sadistic and evil even as a child, when he tortured pets and killed his own parents.
The Riddler links criminal activity with his obsession for puzzles, riddles, and word games. As a child named Edward Nigma, he wins a puzzle contest at school by stealing the answer from the teacher. This gives him a taste for puzzles and riddles and proving himself smarter than anyone else through deceit. At first he uses his skills to commit petty crimes. He takes on the persona of the Riddler to challenge Batman, whom he considers a potentially worthy adversary.
The Penguin—who always appears with top hat, monocle, tuxedo, and cane—is one of Batman’s most persistent enemies. His real name is Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot. As a child he is bullied for being short, overweight, and having a beak-like nose. In some versions, he also has flipper-like hands. Growing up, his mother’s birds are his only friends, and he obtains a college degree in ornithology. When his mother dies, he becomes a criminal. In an alternative storyline, he becomes a criminal when he is rejected by his high-society family. He takes over a gang and comes up against Batman.
Mr. Freeze is a powerful super-villain who bases his crimes on cold or ice and has a freeze gun to use against his enemies. Originally called Mr. Zero, Mr. Freeze was renamed for the Batman television series in the 1960s. While attempting to cure his terminally ill, cryogenically frozen wife, he has an accident and afterward can only stay alive by wearing a cryogenic suit. He takes to crime in order to fund research to find a cure for his wife.
A great part of the allure of the Batman universe is the depth of characterization of the Dark Knight’s nemeses. Knowing the background of the villains who challenge Batman intensifies the conflict in the stories.
Barry Solomon is a freelance writer who contributes thoughtful, fun articles on comic books, magic the gathering, movie trivia, geek conventions, board games and other cool topics.
Image credit goes to Rose Griggs.