13 Things We Learned About Batman, From DC Comics’s 1980s Batbible
By Mark Mancini
The Adam West Batman series, which ran from 1966 to 1968, was colorful, upbeat, and perhaps the corniest show on television. That didn’t sit too well with some longtime fans of the Caped Crusader who yearned for a return to the character's moodier pulp roots.
Enter the late Dennis “Denny” O’Neil. A former journalist, O’Neil was hired on as a writer for DC Comics in 1968, and over the next few years, he and artist Neal Adams oversaw a shift in the Batman franchise's tone. Camp comedy was out; gritty crime dramas were in. To quote DC’s Chief Creative Officer Jim Lee, O’Neil and Adams “channeled the zeitgeist of the times and brought to life a darker, more evocative yet grounded take on Batman.”
Sometime in the 1980s, O’Neil, an editor of the Batman books by this point, typed up a set of guidelines titled “A Brief Batbible: Notes on the Dark Knight Detective” and gave copies to new writers and artists who were working on the character. It had all the dos and don’ts of telling Batman stories, as O’Neil saw them.
Think of it as Bruce Wayne’s code of conduct. O’Neil laid out all kinds of rules about everything from the billionaire vigilante’s diet (“He eats sparingly and well”) to his research habits (“speed reading is one of the first skills he acquired”). There are also some very specific notes about his friends, his enemies, his gizmos, his hometown, and the kinds of stories our hero is allowed to inhabit. It was partly about avoiding mistakes in the continuity, but it also served to help creators understand what makes the character tick.
Here are 13 of our favorite insights from this unusual piece of comic book history.
1. Batman can’t go to Mars—but it’s OK if he fights a vampire.
Not all genres are Dark Knight-friendly, it seems, and O’Neil thought it was important to keep Batman out of “cosmic science fiction and fantasy” narratives. He instructed writers to avoid bringing the superhero to faraway planets, like Mars, or to magical worlds, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. But he had no problem at all with “supernatural” Batman stories. “Ghosts and even such nasties as vampires and poltergeists are fair game,” O’Neil wrote.
2. The Waynes have been rolling in the dough for a long time.
“Wayne money is old money,” O’Neil wrote. “The family has been in Gotham since Colonial times.” The city was almost literally built in their image; one of Bruce’s ancestors (Solomon Wayne) had a major influence on the architecture of downtown Gotham.
3. Alfred the butler does a killer Bruce Wayne impression.
You’ll never find a more interesting resume. Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler and surrogate dad, is said to be a paramedic, a cook, a repairman—and somebody who can “perfectly imitate” his boss’s voice. Not only can he mimic Bruce Wayne if need be, but he also nails Wayne's phony Batman voice (though he might need a lozenge after that one).
4. Religious iconography in Batman comics is a big no-no.
O’Neil forbade Bat-writers from using “religious references in plot and copy,” urging them to come up with “analogues” instead. Real-world faiths and creeds were firmly off-limits. That said, even Batman can’t always avoid getting mixed up in religious controversies.
5. There’s a dark secret about Wayne Manor’s grandfather clock.
One of the many secret passageways to the Batcave below Wayne Manor can be accessed through a grandfather clock. Located in the library, it “unlocks a secret door” whenever someone adjusts the minute and hour hands to 10:42. According to O’Neil, that’s “the hour and minute Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered.”
6. Batman doesn't have sex.
He may be rich. He may be handsome. He may have “an IQ comfortably in the genius numbers.” But Bruce Wayne isn’t a guy who shows Gotham’s most eligible bachelorettes a good time. The man is constantly bailing out of dates early—and he never calls the women he’s gone out with after the fact. The reason, as O'Neil wrote, is simple: “[Batman] is celibate. Any kind of sexual involvement would take thought and energy away from his mission. He appreciates women, even admires them, but he cannot afford intimacy.” (Though that has certainly changed in more recent comics.)
7. The Batcave has a complex ecosystem.
“The cave is vast,” O’Neil wrote. “Not even Wayne himself has explored it completely. There are thousands of bats living in it and a small subterranean stream in which freshwater fish can be found.”
8. Boss Tweed would have loved Gotham.
When describing the state of corruption in Gotham, the Batbible invokes New York City’s notorious Tammany Hall. Under its most infamous leader, William Meager “Boss” Tweed, this political machine defrauded the Big Apple to the tune of millions—perhaps billions—of dollars.
9. Batman frequents an old subway tunnel.
Wayne Manor has a private, underground route that can take Bruce directly to Gotham thanks to a “long, narrow tunnel” which leads to “an abandoned subway tunnel about two miles from the [Batcave’s] central chamber.” There are worse ways to commute.
10. Batman is “genuine”; Bruce Wayne is not.
Make no mistake, Batman sees Bruce Wayne as a character he occasionally needs to play; it’s not the other way around. “Wayne has become a part of his tool kit, an identity he finds useful,” O’Neil wrote. As a well-known billionaire, the Wayne persona can gather top-secret information with ease and make professional connections along the way. It's hard to network when you’re wearing pointy ears and a cape, after all.
11. The Dark Knight can run—or swim—20 miles in “a little over two hours.”
He can also reportedly bench press 550 pounds without difficulty. Sheesh.
12. Ninjas influenced Batman’s outfit.
“Dark coloring allows him to blend into shadows, a technique he learned from Japanese ninja,” O’Neil wrote. We’re also told the garments he chooses are made of a “light, flexible material, designed like a circus acrobat’s costume, [allowing] him maximum freedom of movement.” (You might recall what Ra’s al Ghul had to say about theatricality.)
13. Batman and Count Dracula arguably have a lot in common.
Part of the Batbible explores the Dark Knight’s folkloric and literary influences. O’Neil pairs other superheroes with classic characters of yore; he sees Gilgamesh in Superman, Apollo in the Flash, Hercules in the Incredible Hulk, and so on.
But in his opinion, Batman owes a lot more to yesteryear’s bad guys. “Look at Dracula, squint a bit, and you see The Batman,” O’Neil wrote. He regards the Caped Crusader as a pop-culture embodiment of our shared anxieties about crime, urbanization, and things that go bump in the night. Batman’s got that much in common with Dracula, werewolves, and the like.
Yet while those monsters are portrayed as threats to mankind, Batman is depicted as an agent of justice, albeit a dark and mysterious one. “What I’m suggesting,” O’Neil explained, “is that we have coopted the grimmer archetypes, embraced them, declared them, with all their ferocity and relentless and inhuman competence, our allies. One of the names we call them is Batman.”