Everybody loves Batman. After 75 years of saving Gotham City, the Caped Crusader has become an archetype. So it’s not surprising that every comic needs its own version of Bats. And yet, Batman remains unique, and it’s not so easy to copy him. Here are 9 Batman knock-offs that totally miss why Batman works.
Top image: Shadowhawk
1) The Fixer from Frank Miller’s Holy Terror
The superhero protagonist of Frank Miller’s post-9/11 propaganda comicHoly Terror was originally supposed to be Batman. But DC Comics executives were reportedly quite leery of the “Batman vs Osama” premise — and yet, Miller claims that he chose to take the story out of the DC universe, after he realised that the character was going in a different direction. Nevertheless, the final result is clearly an ersatz Batman, complete with a thinly veiled Catwoman clone named Natalie Stack, and a Jim Gordon stand-in called Dan Donegal.
Sadly, Miller misses the essence of what makes Batman such a well-loved hero — his humanity and his sense of justice. The Fixer becomes an impassive, merciless warrior against Islam, and is more akin to a homicidal Sin City protagonist than most versions of the Caped Crusader. Even in Miller’s own The Dark Knight Returns, Batman explicitly eschews guns and killing. Twenty years later, the Fixer tortures and kills people by the dozen. The Fixer fundamentally contradicts the core of Miller’s own iconic rendition of Batman.
2) Night Thrasher (Marvel Comics)
Dwayne Taylor, scion of a wealthy family, sees his parents murdered and, thoroughly traumatized, decides to wage war against criminals. He trains his mind and body obsessively for years and, aided by his legal guardian and his housekeeper, sets out to fight crime. It’s a familiar story.
However, between the character’s high-tech skateboard and his inability to deduce (for years anyway) that his elderly housekeeper was the one who killed his parents, it’s a little difficult to take this Batman analogue seriously. Nor does it help that Night Thrasher realises early on that he can’t hack it alone, so he ends up founding the New Warriors — a group of absurdly named teenage sidekicks (Speedball! Marvel Boy!) that he proceeds to mentor. Not exactly the lone wolf master detective that he’s clearly based on.
3) The Black Fox from Marvel: The Lost Generation
The Fox is actually one Dr. Robert William Paine, another wealthy eccentric who decides to fight crime with only his wit and combat skills. His secret hideout (“The Foxhole”) is hidden on his family farm, and he often uses a radar-invisible jet called “the Flying Fox.”
This character is Batman, minus the fervor and the intimidation factor. It’s a bit difficult to fear a hero who emerges from a “Foxhole” every night and only abandons his day job as a Chicago law professor (with great, agonizing reluctance) after a villain goads him into it. A reluctant Batman is no Batman at all.
Shadowhawk is the alter ego of a lawyer named Paul Johnstone who, in contrast to his crack addict brother Hojo, manages to work his way up to the position of district attorney. Mobsters try to use Hojo as leverage to persuade Paul to fix a case against their compatriots, but Paul refuses. So later, the mobsters attack Paul directly and inject him with HIV-infected blood. Enraged by this development, Paul dons an exo-suit, including a utility belt loaded with anti-HIV pills, and sets out to fight crime.
Creator Jim Valentino said that his idea was “to take Batman and strip him down to his core — what makes him work, what doesn’t.” Bizarrely, his conception of what constituted Batman’s core qualities led him to decide that Shadowhawk would routinely take pleasure in breaking criminals’ spines. And that’s without even touching the insanely tone-deaf use of HIV/AIDS in the origin story.
5) Nighthawk from The Squadron Supreme
The Squadron Supreme was one of Marvel’s weaker attempts to rip off the Justice League, and Nighthawk was the group’s resident Batman clone. A brooding rich kid named Kyle Richmond, he’s haunted by his girlfriend’s death in a drunk driving incident he was involved in. So he tries to join the army, only to be rejected for having a heart murmur. When Kyle inherits his father’s megacorp, he starts training obsessively to counter his heart defect, while also attempting to research a cure. The result is a serum that enhances his physical abilities — but only between dusk and dawn. Originally a supervillain, Kyle switches sides, to become a superhero… but does so without compromising on the brooding and aloofness.
This particular attempt at duplicating the Batman archetype is hobbled by one key difference from the original: the ridiculous conceit of the power-boosting serum that only works at night. Batman is the superhero genre’s main testament to self-improvement, because he’s a human being who routinely defeats superhuman entities through the use of ingenuity and training. Nighthawk’s serum reads like a cheap attempt at upping the ante, which backfires and undermines the entire concept. It’s entirely possible that someone at Marvel editorial had the same thought since Nighthawk — in one timeline — ends up getting himself killed in a melee with his former teammates.
Mark Millar summarises the main conceit of this series as: “What if Batman was the Joker?” The story focuses on a super-villain whose motivations and mental state match those of the Joker, but whose circumstances (wealth, costume, physical abilities) parallel Batman’s.
Many derivative versions of Batman miss the point of the character by having him abandon his character-defining moral code and commit cold-blooded murder, mostly to get a rise out of fans who take the whole ‘grim and gritty’ aesthetic a little too seriously. But Millar takes this tendency to an irrational and gruesome extreme with Nemesis, and then subsequently papers over the absurd excess by passing it off as a high concept. When your Batman homage starts to betray the original character, simply pretend you’re making a clever point about the thin line between him and his archenemy! Millar misses another important fact: that the similarities between Batman and the Joker have been explored in numerous actual Batman stories, several of which are far more insightful.
The star of a Christian straight-to-video series, Bibleman is a millionaire named Miles Peterson who, after going through a period of existential angst, embraces his religious beliefs and becomes a superhero. He operates out of a BibleCave, fights a Joker/Riddler pastiche called The Fibbler, and works with a Robin stand-in named Cypher.
And Bibleman methodically strips the Batman concept of everything that’s cool about it. Where Bruce Wayne employs reason and science, Bibleman relies on unquestioning faith. Where Batman wears a costume that helps him blend into shadows and intimidate his enemies, Bibleman’s outfit is deliberately garish. Batman’s enemies are murderous psychopaths but Bibleman wants to rid the world of… committed atheists and Jewish people? (One of Bibleman’s main adversaries is a hook-nosed Jewish stereotype called The Gossip Queen.)
8) Night Man
Another Batman ripoff that’s guilty of undercutting the original concept with a silly superpower, Night Man is the alter ego of saxophonist Johnny Domino — who acquires the ability to hear the evil thoughts of those around him. A later version of the character moves him away from tech-based methods, and into the realm of magic.
Superpowers and Batman don’t go together. If Batman has a defining trait, it’s his humanity. In a fictional universe full of god-like beings, he remains the strongest testament to the potential of the relatively fragile human race. When he gains a superpower, there’s little distinguishing him from the myriad superhumans infesting the pages of comics one can barely tell apart. No surprise then that Night Man is an awfully boring character. It doesn’t help that his decidedly unimpressive superpower is rarely of any use, functioning mainly as a lazy way of having him stumble across new antagonists.
9) Inferno from Irredeemable
This one’s a stretch since it’s an entirely reasonable expression of Mark Waid’s opinion about what would happen if Superman really did fight Batman. The series follows an insane Superman analogue called the Plutonian, as he wreaks havoc around the planet and repeatedly thwarts the attempts of relatively mundane superheroes to rein him in. Inferno is an obvious Batman analogue — a wealthy human who underwent extreme training to fight crime, out of a Batcave-ish hideout — who’s introduced only to be brutally snuffed out by the Plutonian in short order.
But as any self-respecting Bat-fan knows, Batman absolutely can beat Superman in a fight. There’s no question.
Appendix: Batman Copies Who Actually Work Really Well
Oliver Queen is often presented as a pretty close copy of Batman — but when that’s the case, he usually does capture most of what’s great about Bats, especially in the Arrow TV show. And, as TrueVCU points out below, Marvel’s Moon Knight is also frequently amazing. Midnighter, a member of superhero team The Authority, started off as a gleefully homicidal Batman clone (albeit one with enhanced physical abilities) but — along with his husband Apollo — went on to become one of mainstream comics’ most distinctive and well-done heroes. The Big Bang Comics universe, patterned after Golden and Silver Age comics, produced its own Batman analogue: the Knight Watchman. He features in some truly inspired homages, many of which successfully channel the pulp insanity and breathtaking flights of imagination that defined those early works. Kurt Busiek manages to get a religious Batman right in Astro City: Confession, a story narrated by that universe’s Robin equivalent. Instead of turning the Confessor into a two-dimensional vessel for one particular belief system, Busiek sheds light on the motifs of religion and morality in Astro City in particular and superhero comics in general, while telling an entertaining story to boot. And all that’s without getting to the legion of hilarious parodies, from Dave Sim’s The Cockroach (ping ping ping!) to Darkwing Duck.