Batman - haunted by the deaths of his parents, Bruce Wayne has dedicated his life to fighting crime so that no-one need ever experience the same pain1.
This is the raison d'être of one of the 20th Century's most popular characters, who could perhaps be described as a 'cultural icon' with a minimum of tiresome hyperbole. He was introduced in comic books by Bob Kane in 1939 and since then has appeared in a variety of other media - film, radio, television and prose fiction. At the time of writing (2003) a Broadway musical is rumoured to be in development, under the guidance of Tim Burton (the director of two Batman feature films).
The exact reasons for Batman's enduring appeal are uncertain, but it is probable that the range of villains he encounters plays a significant part. Although Batman, a non-powered vigilante, has fought his fair share of muggers, mobsters, kidnappers and terrorists over the years (with a brief digression into alien encounters in the mid-20th Century), a host of colourful, unique enemies has remained the staple diet since Joker and Catwoman were introduced in 1940. Many heroes are defined by the conflicts they overcome (the Labours of Hercules being an early example) and as can be seen from the following, Batman regularly overcomes a bewildering range of foes. The following details some of the best (and worst) of these evil geniuses, serial killers, madmen and mercenaries, from the famous to the obscure.
Hall of Fame
Some of Batman's foes are known by comic fans, movie buffs and average joes alike. They tend to show up in each new incarnation of his adventures and have been interpreted in many ways.
A strong, yet intelligent man with a grudge against Batman, Bane was created in 1993 for the sole purpose of breaking Batman's back2 and was used in each big 'event' storyline after this. In time, his intelligence was forgotten and he became 'generic strong man' for the most part. He showed up in the movie franchise as Poison Ivy's almost wordless henchman.
The femme fatale, and one of Batman's earliest enemies. Having first appeared in 1940, Catwoman's loyalties have changed numerous times over the years, but at heart she is a thief, but never a killer, never truly evil. She works for her own reasons, whether stealing a diamond necklace, saving lives or teaming up with others. She grew up on the streets of Gotham, and will always feel a loyalty to the real people of that city. However, she has a deep-seated contempt for many of its rich denizens. In the film franchise, Catwoman appears to possess the mythical nine lives of a cat, an attribute which the more obscure Catman appears to possess in the comics.
One of the few characters created for the animated series to cross over into the comics, Harley Quinn has proved popular enough to star in her own monthly title. Her story is that she was a psychiatrist at Arkham who fell in love with the Joker, inadvertently helped him escape and went completely mad. She now lives in a strange little reality all her own and causes chaos everywhere she goes. The Joker has tried to kill her over a dozen times, but like all good comics characters, she seems to be very hard to get rid of.
'The Clown Prince of Crime' is certainly not a joke. Completely insane, he has killed more people than any of Batman's other foes. Even he is unsure who he was before he became the Joker - his memories tend to vary on this issue, but he thinks he was probably a down on his luck stand-up comic. The Joker's criminal record includes killing the second hero known as Robin, shooting Barbara Gordon (the former Batgirl) and crippling her by shattering her spine, and murdering Commissioner Gordon's second wife Sarah. In the past he has gained diplomatic immunity by working as an ambassador for an undesirable nation, but he overplayed his hand when he sent a nuclear missile towards New York some time ago. Despite his insanity, he was incarcerated at a maximum security prison, much harder to escape than your average asylum. In the film franchise, the Joker is revealed to have been the man who killed Batman's parents. A rather bizarre change, probably in an attempt to make him more Batman's true nemesis.
Haunted by the death of his wife, Mister Freeze's heart is as cold as his name implies. Most heroes have a cold-manipulating foe, though most of these are fun-loving types. Freeze is a tragic villain, not only due to the death of his wife, but because he cannot survive outside of an extremely cold environment. Most recently became a cop killer, earning the ire of the police department and Batman alike.
Mr Oswald C Cobblepot has often been a comic villain - remember his quacking in the 1960s TV show? - basing his crimes on avian themes and utilising a variety of implausible trick umbrellas, but was reinvented in the 1990s as a master criminal. He is one of Gotham's major crime bosses, just beyond the reach of the law, who has a long-running feud with both Batman and Bruce Wayne.
A woman who, due to an accident with various chemicals, is becoming more plant-like as time goes on, Poison Ivy is not necessarily evil. Ecologically aware, she is often acting in what she believes to be a noble fashion, protecting plants from the evils that men commit. She can produce various chemicals from her body, the most common of which can cause people to fall hopelessly in love with her.
One of Batman's most famous foes, he was originally rather obscure until the producers of the 1960s TV series rediscovered him and catapulted him to stardom, with the help of some top-rate actors. Obsessed with puzzles and riddles, Edward Nigma is often captured very quickly because he cannot help but give the police, and hence Batman, a clue to each of his capers. He reformed at one point, but was possessed by a fearsome demon and subsequently returned to crime.
The master of fear, Scarecrow is a former psychology professor who uses toxins which create phobias and mass hysteria in order to revenge himself on the world. He himself hates birds. Totally useless in a hand-to-hand fight, his chemicals have over-powered even the best of Gotham's citizens. Rumour says that the Scarecrow will be the villain in the upcoming fifth Batman film.
Perhaps one of Batman's most tragic foes, district attorney Harvey Dent used to be a force for good in Gotham City until a vial of acid was thrown in his face by a convicted criminal. Half of his face still achingly handsome, the other is now a mass of scars, and Harvey Dent is two people, the kind and noble Dent and the savage Two-face, flipping between personalities at the toss of a coin. He plays correspondence chess with Batman and has a friendship (of a kind) with Detective Renée Montoya of the police department, but in his altered ego he wouldn't hesitate at killing people.
Hall of Obscurity
Some of Batman's foes are beloved by comics fans and make frequent appearances in this medium, yet are unknown to the uninitiated. The most significant of these include:
A guy who acquired a statue and cloth supposed to endow the bearer with the mythical nine lives of a cat, who decided to turn to crime because he was bored. He has escaped seemingly fatal incidents numerous times, so the evidence suggests his costume (fashioned from the cloth) really works.
A whole succession of criminals have used this name, including:
A demented horror actor out for revenge
A guy who could mould his body into exciting shapes
A man whose body is basically a pile of goo, who lives in an exoskeleton and whose touch melts people (eugh)
An ugly woman who decided to become clay-like in order to be beautiful, if only temporarily
Introduced in 1999, David Cain is one of the world's top assassins/mercenaries (Batman fights an awful lot of these) who also happens to be one of the people who trained the young Bruce Wayne, and more importantly, is also the adoptive father of the latest Batgirl. He has become an important enemy for Batman due to his involvement with a scheme that got the hero into an awful lot of bother.
One of Batman's most intriguing foes, Deadshot is a master mercenary, an assassin with a death wish and one of the top marksmen in the world. This causes him to throw himself into ludicrously dangerous situations which are almost certain suicide. But his pride makes him fight to survive, which he always does, despite often overwhelming odds.
One of the many mad scientists which every super-hero is plagued by, Hugo Strange's particular madness is that he thinks he is (or at least that he can become) Batman. As far as he is concerned, that Wayne chap is an impostor.
A rogue Soviet agent, once quite a frequent character type in comics, this guy is unusual in that he has survived into the post Cold War era. He is so ruthlessly determined that he once cut off his own hand in order to escape Batman. Once seen in company with the NKVDemon.
A former alligator wrestler, who is now somewhat reptilian himself, Killer Croc is a foe who relies on brawn rather than brains these days. He was once a powerful crime lord, but as time has gone on, he has headed down the 'mindless brute' route of character 'development'. In the animated series, he has been shown to be in love with reporter Summer Gleason.
Ra's Al Ghul
His name is Arabic for 'the Demon's Head' and he's a megalomaniac. Forget the Joker, al Ghul is Batman's true nemesis. An immortal, he believes that the human race is destroying this planet (so far, so true) and needs to be culled if the world is to survive. He would prefer it if Batman could rule this new world with him, as the husband of his beautiful daughter Talia, but instead the two have been at odds for years, with Talia torn between the two of them. A man with a dangerous intellect, al Ghul often looks for ways to anger Batman, most recently by driving a wedge between the Detective (as he calls the hero) and his heroic colleagues in the Justice League.
Scarface and the Ventriloquist
A relatively recent addition to the ranks of Batman's foes, this is a crime boss (specialising in the supply of drugs for the most part) with a twist. Scarface is a ventriloquist's dummy, quite possibly alive, with a ventriloquist who is squeamish and a pacifist. He's also not a very good ventriloquist, which is particularly evident in the way that all his 'B's are very definitely 'G's.
Hackers and Slashers
A surprising proportion of Batman's Rogues Gallery are judged to be criminally insane (including Joker, Two-Face, the Riddler, Poison Ivy and many others) and tend to be incarcerated at Arkham Asylum, which is conveniently a lot easier to escape from than a regular prison. The most disturbed or disturbing inmates of Arkham are the serial killers.
A man who believed he was ridding the world of a terrible evil by killing all the members of his family, seemingly drawing strength from each death. He tended to go for overkill in his murders - beating, stabbing and shooting each victim. He met a grisly end in a vat of molten metal, left to die by Batman's insane temporary replacement.
Thrives on fear, or specifically the body's chemical and hormonal response to it. He abducts his chosen victim (generally someone who will not be missed) and tortures them for days, usually causing them to die of terror. Then, he eats their hearts. He has the ability to make his face appear differently to an observer, and can either disguise himself as a trusted figure (Batman, Abraham Lincoln or a police officer) or make himself truly hideous.
A perfectly pleasant man who demonstrated great leadership skills in a prison softball match, Doctor Faustus believed he had traded his soul to the devil in exchange for immortality. All he had to do in return was kill someone each month, or on odd occasions, two people. He died in a helicopter crash. Unless, of course, he really is immortal.
Mister Zsasz's crimes are apparently motiveless, and he carries out an awful lot of them. On his infrequent escapes, he will make his way through Gotham City, killing its denizens (or 'zombies' as he calls them), generally dressed only in his pristine white boxer shorts, marking his body with a cut from his weapon of choice (a large knife). His body is covered with these scars.
Hall of Shame
Not all of Batman's foes are liable to strike fear into the hearts of law-abiding men and women. Some of them are more likely to cause smirks, perhaps even suppressed giggles or outright merriment. Here are a few of them:
Calendar Man - falls into the realm of 'ludicrously predictable' by patterning his crimes after dates. Once the pattern is discovered - days, months, seasons, etc - he's done for.
Cavalier - dressed as the historical character of his name, the Cavalier was a master swordsman and exceedingly gallant (even stopping mid-crime to help an old lady across the road), but was always brought down very swiftly when he encountered Batman.
Crazy Quilt - for a while, a dangerous foe of Robin. But he's called Crazy Quilt. Next!
Killer Moth - a fan-favourite character, and the first ever Batgirl villain, Killer Moth was never a threat. Until recently, when a deal with the devil metamorphosed him into a huge insect-like creature called Charaxes.
Kite-Man - the world's number one hang-glider, he has of course turned to crime and uses fearsome kite weaponry.
Mrs Dalling - a fearsome foe, Mrs Dalling was none other than the cleaner at Gotham City's police department.
Polka-Dot Man - yes, that does say Polka-Dot Man.
Signalman - yes, signals are very useful for communication purposes, and semiologists find them very interesting. But as has been shown by this gentleman, they don't make for a particularly impressive villainous theme. Signalman's one moment of true flair came when he trapped Batman inside the Bat-Signal.