19 Members of Batman’s Rogues Gallery Who Turned to a Life of Crime after a Traumatic Childhood or Life-Shattering Event
1. The Joker
Although Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke posited a credible backstory (failed comedian driven insane by loss of family and face all in one day) for Batman’s arch-nemesis, DC has been — so far, at least — reluctant to commission an “official” biography for the character. And rightly so — as Heath Ledger ably proved in The Dark Knight, you don’t need to give a villain a complicated history if his only purpose is to raise hell with style. And so while we may never know who the Joker really was (petty criminal? innocent dupe? amoral mobster? You decide!) before his fateful fall into that vat of toxic chemicals, it’s been well established that traumatic event was the night the Joker was truly born. “You made me,” hissed Jack Nicholson at Michael Keaton in the 1989 Batman movie, and… well, it’s hard to argue with that, really. Seriously, Bruce — your adventures in anger management therapy may have made for a crappy comic book, but at least the world would have had one less homicidal maniac to contend with.
Always in the running for the title of Batman’s most tragic foe, Harvey “Two-Face” Dent was a crusading district attorney who angered one too many mob bosses and got a face full of acid for his efforts. In the original stories from the 1940s, this loss of half his handsomeness was enough to unhinge his mind to the point that he let a coin toss decide whether he would be good or evil. Later revisions would add the detail that Dent was physically abused by his father and he developed a split personality as a result — a split that came crashing to the surface when the acid struck his face. Making his case even more tragic is the fact that efforts to restore his face — and his sanity — have never lasted long; in one memorable episode of the Batman animated series, he had himself kidnapped to prevent such an operation from happening, giving new meaning to “his own worst enemy.”
Foe, friend, lover, uneasy ally: Selina Kyle has been it all (and then some) in the Dark Knight’s life. Around almost as long as Batman himself, she’s seen quite a few additions to her backstory over the years, one of the more ludicrous being the idea that a head injury was responsible for her thieving ways (apparently, the idea that a woman would enjoy stealing and dressing in cat-themed costumes was just too risqué in Dr. Wertham’s America). A more recent storyline explained how Ms. Kyle, born to a suicidal mother and alcoholic father, got shipped to an orphanage and then juvenile hall in her early years, where she ran afoul of an embezzling headmaster, who tied the young girl inside a sack and threw her in a river to cover up her crime. And if that weren’t disturbing enough, Kyle escaped from that death trap to the “safety” of Gotham’s streets, working as a young prostitute and con artist before embarking on her costumed adventures.
4. Mr. Freeze
Mr. Freeze (originally known as “Mr. Zero,” and… yeah, good move with the moniker change) and his freeze gun debuted in 1959 to plague the Dynamic Duo, but the motivation for his icy rampages was never fully explored until “Heart of Ice,” an episode of the 1990s Batman animated series that introduced Victor Fries, a scientist and cryonics expert who used his knowledge to preserve his terminally ill wife until a cure could be found for her disease. This personal use of company property didn’t sit well with his employer, who ordered the experiment shut down at a critical time; when Fries tried to stop him, he was caught in an explosion. He survived, but the accident somehow altered his body chemistry, making it impossible for him to live in any environment warmer than the freezing point. Literally and figuratively shut off from the rest of humanity, Mr. Freeze steals only as a means to an end: to finance his research into reviving his wife, and to pay for the serious weaponry needed to plunge Gotham City into another ice age.
5. The Penguin
Inspired, of all things, by a cartoon penguin used to promote cigarettes in the ’40s, the waddling arch-criminal began life as Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, a short, obese child tormented by neighborhood bullies and cursed with an overbearing mother who insisted he carry an umbrella at all times (her husband having succumbed to pneumonia after getting caught in a downpour). With only the birds in his mother’s shop as his real friends, something snapped when they were taken away from him, and so he started down a life of crime with birds and umbrellas serving as his leitmotif. Or, if you want to go the Tim Burton route, he was a flipper-handed mutant tossed into a river by his high-society parents and raised by underground penguins. Now that I think about it, my habit of fast-forwarding to Michelle Pfeiffer’s scenes makes a lot more sense now.
6. Poison Ivy
If growing up wealthy with emotionally distant parents was enough to turn a person into a super-villain, then prep school reunions would be a lot more interesting. But timid Pamela Isley was also seduced by her ethically challenged botany professor, who injected her with plant toxins as part of an evil experiment. She nearly died and was transformed into a plant/human hybrid capable of secreting her own toxins, but that’s not the traumatic event that sent her over the edge — no, it was the fact that her lover/poisoner fled from the authorities and abandoned her in the hospital, giving her insane mind reason enough to launch a vendetta against all men. Later, a more environmentally driven Poison Ivy readjusted her murderous sights on everyone and anyone who threatened plant life. Gothamites could be forgiven for not seeing that as a positive step in her personal growth.
So, take a kid who idolizes his older brother and put him in a family that’s so twisted the mother tries to convince both her sons to kill their father. When the older one accepts the job, the younger one — not wanting to see his brother spend a life in prison, or worse — tries to shoot the gun out of his brother’s hand, but accidentally shoots him in the head, inadvertently killing the brother he loves to save the father he hates. Do you think that kid is going to have some issues growing up — like, say, become an expert marksman and master assassin with a death wish? Yeah, me too.
Jonathan Crane, the self-styled Master of Fear, started out life as fearful as the rest of us — first of his stepfather, who raped and murdered Crane’s mother in front of him, and then of the neighborhood bullies who harassed him because of his bookish nature and lanky frame (which caused one local wit to call him “scarecrow”). His obsession with fear led to his studies in psychiatry and fear-inducing experiments, which eventually led him to a life of crime — initially as an enforcer or a blackmailer, using his knowledge of fear to get victims to do whatever he wanted.
It’s hard to tell if this one should be classified under “traumatic childhood” or “too effed up from the beginning for it to matter either way.” A sort of anti-Batman, Thomas Elliot was a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne who was also born into a wealthy family. But with a drunk and abusive father and a mother too scared to protect her child, Elliott grew resentful of Wayne’s happy upbringing. He cut the brake line in his parents’ car, wagering that their deaths would give him all the independence and wealth he wanted, but Bruce’s doctor dad saved Elliott’s mother. Then, when Wayne lost his parents, Elliott grew angrier by the fact that Wayne was living the life of (apparent) leisure that he was denied by his controlling mother. One act of matricide and a fateful meeting with one of Batman’s arch-enemies later, Elliott created his Hush identity, with the goal of manipulating others in a scheme to destroy both Bruce Wayne and Batman.
Created to “break the Bat” in the 1990s “Knightfall” storyline, Bane trumped Superman’s Doomsday by coming with a backstory that made him more than just a one-note sparring partner. He was born in the fictional Caribbean country of Santa Prisca, in a prison called Peña Duro (“Hard Rock”). His father, a revolutionary, had escaped Santa Prisca’s court system, and so the corrupt government ordered his young son to serve out his life sentence instead. A convict his entire life, Bane committed his first murder at the age of eight, and he carried a teddy bear (“Osito”) with a hole in the back that allowed Bane to secretly hold a knife when needed. Intelligent and merciless, Bane had established himself as top dog in the prison when he was forced to take part in experiments to test a new drug. He nearly dies, but the “venom” ends up giving him superhuman strength. He moves to Gotham, a place he had heard about while in prison (he likes that it’s a place where fear rules, just like prison) and attacks Batman to establish himself as Gotham’s baddest boy on the block. Nothing personal, just business… but try explaining that to Wayne’s spinal cord.
11-12. King Tut/Maxie Zeus
King Tut first appeared on the 1960s Batman TV show; he was introduced as a university professor who was struck in the head during a student riot and woke up believing he was a reincarnation of the Egyptian pharaoh. Why his henchmen fed into this delusion by wearing Egyptian garb and fetching him figs was never fully explained, but at least the actors looked like they were having fun. Copyright issues kept Tut from migrating to the comics until 2009; in the meantime, Batman’s writers came up with Maxie Zeus, another history teacher with a messianic complex. He loses his wife and his sanity, in that order, and he uses his knowledge of Greek mythology to become a Gotham crimelord (don’t let anyone tell you a classical education can’t prepare you for real life). In later appearances, including his only one on the Batman animated series, he’s a delusional man who believes himself to be king of the Greek gods and above the laws of “mere mortals.”
13. Black Mask
Like Hush, the man who would become Black Mask was born into one of Gotham City’s elite families, and he had to suffer the humiliation of being regularly exposed to the Wayne family’s kindness and love for each other. OK, so it was a little more complicated than that — according to his origin story, Roman Sionis was born to self-absorbed parents who put their social status ahead of their son’s well-being, to the point where they hushed up a head injury he received at birth rather than risk their wealthy friends finding out their son wasn’t perfect. Sionis grew up resenting the “masks” his family wore in public, and when his parents ordered him to end a relationship with a secretary, he responded by burning down their mansion with them inside — leaving him free and clear to take over the family cosmetics business. And that was all before he lost his fortune, suffered a psychotic break from reality, carved a black mask out of his mother’s coffin, had the mask burned into his face by another fire — really, take your pick.
14. The Ventriloquist
Even children born into mob families deserve a chance at a normal life, but that was never in the cards for poor Arnold Wesker. He witnessed his mother’s murder at the hands of a hitman from a rival family, an event so traumatizing he developed a dissociative identity disorder as a result. A gifted ventriloquist, the milquetoast Wesker never commits a violent act on his own, but instead acts as a simpering underling for “Scarface,” the dummy through whom he addresses his henchmen and channels his criminal impulses. Ventriloquist was a later addition to Batman’s gallery of rogues (debuting only in 1988), but he’s proven to be a popular one: he was slated to be one of the villains to appear in a third proposed Batman movie by director Joel Schumacher, providing the world with the only possible reason to be disappointed those plans fell through.
Firebug is not one of Batman’s more memorable foes, but that doesn’t make his story any less tragic. A former soldier and demolitions expert, Joseph Rigger returned home to find his entire family dead because in three separate accidents: his baby sister from nibbling at peeling paint, his father from a fall through rotted flooring, and his mother while trapped in a malfunctioning elevator. He used his military expertise to become the Firebug, insanely seeking revenge on the three buildings his family died in, regardless of how many innocents died in the process. After their destruction, he later turned to more straightforward crime. Firebug shouldn’t be confused with Firefly, who liked burning things because he was just batshit crazy, although one of his outings did involve him burning down all the amusement-type places he couldn’t visit during his poverty-stricken childhood.
This quiet lady (who, natch, never spoke a word during her one and only appearance in a Batman comic) is about as obscure as a Batman villain can get, and her upbringing stretches the definition of “traumatic childhood,” but here goes: Camilla Ortin was a young girl from a family that made its fortune in fireworks. Rebelling against the constant noise she endured as a child (apparently, her father was a big fan of bringing his work home with him), she studied the art of mime and invested all her money in a travelling mime troupe. It was a financial disaster (no, really!), and when her government grants were cut she staged performance art pieces by gate-crashing noisy events like rock concerts and forcing audiences to watch her mime act. And if that weren’t evil enough, she also came equipped with electrocuting gloves to “silence” anyone who tried to stop her. The lesson: give generous to the NEA. Or else.
17. The Wrath
Like Hush, the Wrath was positioned as a kind of anti-Batman, right down to a similar cowl with the points of the “W” on his mask resembling Batman’s signature look. In his original story, he was the young son of a husband-and-wife team of burglars, who were gunned down by a police officer while the boy watched helplessly. He was then shipped off to an orphanage, where he began his campaign of revenge against all law enforcement officers, becoming a professional assassin and cop killer who mimics many of Batman’s methods (being, in the Wrath’s eyes, the ultimate symbol of the law).
18-19. The Reaper/The Phantasm
Both are lumped together because their stories and motives are so similar; Reaper appeared during the 1980s “Year Two” storyline in Detective Comics and the Phantasm was the mysterious figure in 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm animated film. Both were socialites who lost a loved one to violent crime, both created a masked identity to brutally dispatch the people they deemed responsible, and both used a scythe as their signature weapon. Seriously, what are cops and bereavement counselors doing in Gotham City that even the wealthy socialites figure it’s more cost-effective to hit the farm implement shop and start cleaning up the streets themselves?