1. “Batman’s Double!” (Detective Comics #173, 1951)
Play the superhero role long enough and you’re bound to score yourself a nemesis that borrows elements of your visual style or tragic backstory to provide an obvious contrast to your unflinching heroism.
Superman gets Bizarro, Spider-Man gets Venom, Green Lantern gets Sinestro, the Flash gets Reverse-Flash and Batman — well, Batman gets half of Gotham’s underworld phone book, when you think about it.
One of the earliest examples of blatant bat-copyright infringement was Killer Moth. Originally just another inmate at Gotham Pen, he decided criminals needed their own costumed protector just as the law-abiding citizens had one in Batman. So upon his release, he outfitted a cave with the latest in crime-abetting technology and headed out in his Mothmobile whenever summoned by criminals using a special infrared Moth-Signal. But there was a time when Killer Moth took his Batman-copying even further.
This tale takes place a few months after his debut and first defeat at the hands of our dynamic duo. After escaping from prison, our despondent doppelganger hits on the idea of adopting the identity of a member of Gotham’s high society, and decides to take over the life of (pause for dramatic effect) Bruce Wayne.
One quick switch later, he’s at Bruce’s “fashionable suburban mansion” where Dick unwittingly spills the beans to Killer Moth (who he naturally assumes is Bruce) about Bruce’s nocturnal activities. “Gee, Bruce is acting sort of peculiar… oh, I guess I’m imagining things,” Robin muses to himself. Ace detective work there, Sparky.
Anyway, now that he knows Batman’s secret identity, he hits upon the idea of using the masquerade to revive his Killer Moth career, by convincing mob bosses the “Batman” is scared of Killer Moth. Meanwhile, the real Bruce is trapped in a makeshift prison cell in an abandoned bank vault. How is he going to escape from this one? And what will the real Batman and Robin do now that one of their enemies knows their every secret? Tune in next week, same Bat-time, same… aw, you know the rest.
2. “Batman for a Night” (Detective Comics #417, 1971)
The early ’70s was an interesting time for the Batman franchise. The cancellation of the Batman TV show in 1969 meant the Batman comics couldn’t coast on its popularity with Bat-fans, and so out went the puns, sound effects and colorful super-villains that were splashed across every issue. Replacing them was a Batman returning to his darker urban roots… while at the same time not above the occasional decision that later generations raised on a post-Dark Knight Returns Batman might file under “WTF.”
Case in point: “Batman for a Night,” a story in which a writer named Jan Paxton convinces Batman to let him be the Dark Knight for a day (well, night). Probably because he’s always on the hunt for a bit of good press in the Gotham papers, Batman agrees to let Paxton borrow his costume and car for a night and risk his life chasing down lawbreakers — but the writer fails on his first mission as Batman when he panics and picks up a gun in self-defence. You can see here how well that went over with the real Batman.
Not to worry, as Batman agrees to give him one more chance to play at being Batman. Sadly, tragedy strikes the next day when Paxton’s sister is killed during a bank robbery and she dies in his arms (holy coincidental timing!). With the help of Batman, Paxton suits up and tracks down the criminals responsible at a bowling alley (hey, even bad guys need to unwind). They get ready to capture the ringleader… except Paxton knocks down Batman and confronts the criminal by himself, harnessing his rage over his sister’s death to take him down.
“But now at least I know… what makes the Batman tick!” Paxton muses at the end of this story. Yep, pal, sure. You put on his clothes for two nights and lost your sister while doing it and now you’re an expert Batmanologist. Let’s run with that.
3. “Pick-Up on Gotham 2-4-6!” (Detective Comics #467, 1977)
Our story begins with the end of another long night for our hero, but as he arrives back at his penthouse home there’s a surprise waiting for him, in the form of an uninvited fellow lounging on his couch. “How the devil did YOU get in here?” our affronted avenger asks. The man whose identity the readers are challenged to guess then listens as Batman relates the tale of what he did all night.
Long story short, Batman’s tailing of “two-bit thug” Sneaky Danton takes him to a late-night Gotham subway train. Danton — clearly unaware he’s being tailed by the real Batman in disguise — changes into a Batman costume during a brief flickering of the lights and orders the driver to stop the train between stations.
Batman gives chase in the tunnels, taking care to avoid both oncoming trains and the third rail, but Danton isn’t so lucky — leaving Batman to deduce the reason for the masquerade, and who Danton was supposed to meet.
“It’s against the law to impersonate the Batman!” I can’t decide if Bruce is being facetious with that line, or if Gotham really did pass some kind of statute making it a misdemeanor to wear a Batman costume. That would put a real kink in Halloween costume sales, I bet. (“No, no, officer, I’m the Ratman. See? Rounded ears. Totally legal.”)
4. “The Double Life of Hugo Strange!” (Batman #356, 1983)
In recent years, Hugo Strange has proven himself quite useful to Batman writers in need of an evil psychiatrist for their stories, but he didn’t start out that way.
In his early appearances, he was a “criminal scientist” who used monster-causing chemicals and fear-inducing dust in his schemes to loot Gotham and/or take over the world. Just another evil egghead in the Golden Age’s rapidly saturating market. So kudos to him for seeing the value in re-branding himself as a felonious head-shrinker and mind-messer-wither, because if there ever were a city with plenty of growth opportunities in that field, it’s Gotham.
Alas, Hugo Strange wasn’t above getting high on his own supply (metaphorically speaking), and ended up becoming as bat-guano goofy as the rest of Batman’s Rolodex of rogues. Obsessed with Batman’s perfection in ways that went way behind a passing bromance, Strange gasses and kidnaps Bruce Wayne (having deduced Batman’s secret identity long before) for the sole purpose of bringing him to an exact replica of Wayne Manor, where he intends to murder Wayne with robots and begin his own career as Batman’s replacement. As you can see here, Gotham’s favorite son isn’t going to have any of that.
5. “Darkly Moved the Pawns” (Batman #381, 1985)
As moviegoers saw in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne spent his younger years traveling the globe in search of those who could teach him the skills he would need in his crime-fighting career. From mysterious teachers in the Far East, Wayne learned martial arts, misdirection and the art of stealth… the same skills that would later be taught to a fellow named Anton Knight.
The son of a Gotham mobster who also went abroad to hone his skills, Anton Knight (get it?) mastered martial arts and the ability to appear to blend into the shadows before returning home to start his criminal career (and boff his sort-of-adopted sister, Natalia, on the side — holy quasi-incest!). Alas, while his ninja stealth and minimalist black attire might have led to a steady career changing community-theatre sets, he went a little nutty-stabby when he found his sorta-sister/lover in the arms of a certain vigilante.
At one point during his brief career, Night-Slayer got the idea to impersonate Batman and destroy his good name by committing crimes around Gotham. You can bet Mama Wayne’s boy had something to say about that.
Not the sharpest knife in the corpse’s back — he couldn’t even be bothered to shave off his beard while pretending to be the Dark Knight — but for a guy who wasn’t much more than a coked-up Charles Manson type with bonus kung-fu grip, he managed to cause Batman his share of tsuris before blending back into the shadows.
6. “There’s Nothing So Savage as a Man Destroying Himself!” (Batman #402, 1986)
The mid-1980s was an interesting time for the Batman franchise. DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series set the stage for a complete reboot of several flagship characters, including Superman and Wonder Woman, but Batman just kept on trucking. The events in Crisis were referenced in Batman stories, but when it was over there was no Batman #1, no rebooted origin story, nothing on the scale of, say, George Perez’s complete overhaul of Wonder Woman.
Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli produced the much-acclaimed “Batman: Year One” story arc in 1987 (Batman #404-407), but even that was less a revamp or retooling of the character than a slight tweaking of his origin — e.g., giving Selina Kyle and Commissioner Gordon more fleshed out backgrounds while establishing the basis of Bruce and Jim’s working relationship, that sort of thing.
Following an anniversary-sized 400th issue, this was one of several fill-in issues before the “Batman: Year One” storyline. Writer Max Allan Collins, who’s no stranger to pot-boiling prose, creates a gritty story that kicks off with a mugging that’s halted by a neck-breaking Batman.
When we next see Gotham’s guardian, the police try to arrest him for the murder, though Gordon believes it was committed by a copycat. After calls to costume shops results in a dead end (all the Batman costumes in town had been stolen), the bodies begin to pile up until Batman gets a lead about a police officer who lost his wife and daughter in a botched mob hit — a visit to the man’s “crime lab” in his mother’s house confirms he’s the one stealing Batman’s identity.
Batman takes him down, of course, though he tells Robin it wasn’t easy. “Somehow it was hard to swing at him. After all, who am I but just another guy who thinks he’s Batman?” Deep.
7. “Survivor Syndrome” (The Batman Adventures #27, 1994)
“Survivor Syndrome” begins with Batman — or rather someone dressed as Batman sans trademark chest symbol — facing down muggers in an alley. Meanwhile, we see the (presumably) real Batman holding up a paper with a headline asking if there’s a new Batman in Gotham.
Some detective work brings Batman to the apartment of Tom Dalton, an Olympic athlete who dropped out of sight after his wife was accidentally caught in mob crossfire two years earlier. Dalton stumbles home with a gunshot wound and Batman drives him… somewhere.
When next we see Dalton, he’s in a remote cabin with Batman offering to spend the next two weeks testing his abilities; if he passes, Batman says, he can continue his “nocturnal activities.” The days pass while Dalton trains, and soon he spies his wife’s killer back in Gotham. After a harrowing incident in which Dalton has the choice to live or die and take his wife’s killer with him, he meets Batman at her grave to thank him for helping him deal with his grief.
“You seemed to know exactly what I was going through, every step of the way. You went through something similar, didn’t you?”
Not so much an evil twin as a grief-stricken one, Dalton’s story would have made for an excellent episode of the Batman animated series (which this comic series was based on). I can’t think of a higher compliment than that.