Batman has been in fights all his life: physically, mentally, spiritually. But who or what is his greatest foe? Shelfdust asked some of our favourite comics critics to pick Batman’s Greatest Enemy… but who do YOU agree with?
By Gregory Paul Silber
Joe Chill is Batman’s greatest enemy primarily because he is Bruce Wayne’s first enemy. Introduced by Batman co-creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane in 1939’s Detective Comics #33, he’s the man who shot and killed young Bruce’s parents in front of the boy’s eyes.
Chill is not a supervillain. He has no superpowers, nor does he wear an outlandish costume, and presents little immediate threat to adult Batman. He’s an ordinary man with a gun. Batman meets countless men like that every night, and could kick dozens of their asses in a page or two.
Yet here’s what sets Joe Chill apart from the likes of Bane, Ra’s Al-Ghul, and the Joker: no matter what the rest of Batman’s rogues gallery throws at him, you know the Caped Crusader will win. Even when Darkseid appeared to have killed him, Batman just spent a few issues travelling through time as a caveman, a pirate, et cetera, and within months he was back in the cowl.
But no matter what Batman does to Joe Chill, Chill has already, in a sense, defeated him.
Batman can never let go of what Chill did to him, as it drives everything he does as Batman. As Bill Finger wrote, it’s “who he is and how he came to be.” Bruce suffered the worst loss a child could imagine, and dedicated his life to preventing such things from happening to anyone else. Other defining Batman characteristics, like his aversion to guns, are rooted in this foundational event too. It’s not just that he doesn’t need them, or that they’re less visually interesting than little bat-shaped ninja stars, but that guns traumatized him.
Almost every iteration of Batman since, from comics to movies to kids’ cartoons, has stayed true to the basics of this origin, so let’s take a look at my favorite version: Frank Miller, David Mazzuchelli, Richmond Lewis, and Todd Klein’s “Batman: Year One”.
This story is hardly a deep cut, both because it’s Batman’s post-Crisis origin, and because it remains one of the most beloved Batman comics ever published, but it presents a compelling contrast between Bruce experiencing the worst heartbreak of his life in childhood, and Bruce as a young adult trying to figure out what to do with the pain he’s held for so long.
Bruce comes home to Wayne Manor after years away from Gotham. He’d been studying in secret around the world to prepare for his vaguely-defined war on crime. The next time we see him, he’s sitting before two headstones. The panel is wordless, but it’s clear that the graves belong to his parents. Next, he’s outside the mansion, karate-chopping bricks and kicking trees. It’s presented as a training montage, but the destruction is almost cartoonish, as if Bruce can’t maintain his composure if he goes too long without taking his frustration out on something.
That night, we see Bruce’s first, disastrous attempt at crime-fighting in the Gotham streets. He disguises himself, but not as a bat. “That vice I smell?” a pimp asks, roughing up the underage sex worker who tried to solicit Bruce. “That crazy vet bit–thas old, man.”
Even if the abusive pimp hadn’t suspected Bruce was an undercover cop, it still would’ve gone poorly because the “crazy vet” attacks the pimp. A kick in the face puts the pimp out of commission, but the girl panics, stabs Bruce in his thigh, and summons other sex workers, including a pre-Catwoman Selina Kyle, to come to her defense against the supposed-cop. Then the *real* cops show up and manage to handcuff the still-disguised Bruce.
Bruce musters up the strength to escape, but by the time he stumbled back to Wayne Manor, he’s bleeding within an inch of his life. “…yes father, I have everything but patience” Bruce narrates, sitting alone in his eerily empty mansion. “I’d rather die… than wait… another hour.”
The narration continues over a flashback to the worst night of his life: 18 years had passed since young Bruce walked with Thomas and Martha Wayne out of the movie theater to see The Mark of Zorro, “and the man with frightened, hollow eyes and a voice like glass being crushed… since all sense left my life.”
On the next page, back in the present, a bat crashes through the window, prompting the iconic line “yes, Father. I shall become a bat.” It’s presented as an empowering moment, but isn’t it odd that Batman had to relive his greatest trauma to come to such an epiphany?
It’s probably because, as we could conclude from decades of stories since Frank Miller’s brooding take on the Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne is depressed. Arguably, there had been mental illness subtext since Batman’s earliest appearances, depending on how generous you want to be about how aware a young writer like Bill Finger would be about the then-taboo subject of mental illness as early as 1939. Regardless of your perspective, Batman is still fundamentally a costumed vigilante spurred by a childhood trauma that remains at the front of his mind.
I want to be careful about what I say here, because I’m not a psychologist. I’m only an expert in depression in the sense that I’ve lived with it my whole life, and have been talking about this stuff with therapists regularly since being diagnosed at 13. But in my experience, here’s the thing about depression: you never “get over” your past. Not really. With help and coping skills it gets better, but your past is inextricable from your present self, because you’re never not thinking about it.
“You talk about these things like they’re still happening to you,” my therapist once observed when I described an upsetting childhood memory. I believe Batman has a similar relationship with memory.
It’s part of what I’ve always loved about Batman. It’s silly, of course. The superhero genre was conceived for children, and a “war on crime” remains a childish idea. But there’s something earnestly beautiful about a man who suffered terribly at the hands of a thoughtless criminal like Joe Chill, and vowing to spend the rest of his life coping by trying to do something productive with that pain. It’s ridiculous that it manifests as fights against luchadores and murder clowns, but we also see him responding to his own trauma in the way he mentors young heroes like the various Robins and Batgirls.
In the 2010s, newer Batman writers like Scott Snyder and Tom King have leaned hard into the idea of Batman as an avatar of depression. Joe Chill’s name is rarely spoken throughout these lengthy runs, but his presence looms large in the sense that the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents are at the forefront thematically, and often plotwise. Both writers have been remarkably open about their respective struggles with depression, making it rather explicit in the comics themselves that Batman is capital-D Depressed. Both runs also celebrate the idea of adopting a superheroic mindset as a means of coping with depression, yet the death of Bruce’s parents has always been ground zero for that journey.
So that’s why, when I say “Batman’s greatest enemy is Joe Chill,” what I really mean is “Batman’s greatest enemy is depression.” The causes of depression may be more complicated than a single traumatic event that sets off a chain of consequences throughout one’s life, but for all intents and purposes, Joe Chill is Batman’s origin story.
Even in his most triumphant moments, Batman remains haunted by the horror and sadness of a decades-old trauma. It motivates, or at least informs, everything he does. Whether he’s playing the part of carefree “billionaire playboy” at a party or saving a child’s life, Batman carries the emotional burden of his past at all times.
Joe Chill couldn’t have expected that murdering two parents in a botched mugging could mess a kid up so thoroughly that he’d become an outlandish superhero who broods on rooftops all night. Whether it was Chill or some other jerk who killed the Waynes wouldn’t have really mattered. No matter what anyone does to Batman in any other comic, Joe Chill provided the first, and deepest, wound.
Batman #404: Who I Am, How I Came To Be
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: David Mazzucchelli
Colourist: Richmond Lewis
Letterer: Todd Klein
This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!