We often refer to all the Batman heroes as the Bat Family. That’s, of course, literally true when talking about Batman and the Robins, but it’s also metaphorically true when you rope in Batgirl (which would have been literal if Barbara had accepted Dick’s proposal). Batgirl and the Robins often strike out on their own, as children do, but they just as often work under Bruce’s command. So how does Bruce do as a father?
Dick is his first son, introduced in Detective Comics Vol 1 #38 in 1940. Perhaps a product of a time period when people didn’t think comics through as much as we do today, that issue sees Dick joining Batman after Batman considers they are both orphans due to murder.
So…right off the bat (no pun intended), Batman is not exactly making rational decisions for young Dick Grayson. Then again, as I intend to explore in a future article, Bruce becoming Batman is not exactly the most rational choice to be made for someone who was orphaned due to murder. Especially someone so rich that it’s not as though his loss of his parents will lead to his becoming a street urchin. Robin goes back and forth between being the butt monkey and source of joy for Batman depending on the writer and the decade.
Still, Dick is Bruce’s chance to give an orphan the father he didn’t have. (Or maybe kinda had in Alfred, depending on the retcon) Until Batman and Robin Vol 2, however, Bruce continued to live in the past. He often would withhold information from Dick and would berate Dick for disobeying him, even when it led to the day being saved. Why Robin takes the mantle of Nightwing depends on which continuity you grew up reading. In some continuities he quit to find himself; in others Bruce kicked him out. In Batman: The Animated Series, the fact that Bruce doesn’t trust Dick with Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl identity is what drives him away. In the last two continuities we again see Batman’s issues causing him problems in dealing with his son.
Jason Todd was son number two. We’ll ignore his Pre-Crisis origin in which he was just a carbon copy of Dick and go with his Post-Crisis origin. Forty years (in our time) after the first Robin’s appearance, we had begun to expect a slight bit more realism in our comics. So rather than simple take a kid off the streets to be his new Robin, Batman tries at first to have Jason lead a normal life at a school for troubled youth. Eventually Bruce decides to try and channel Jason’s aggression through making him a Robin. I think here we see Batman serving as a much better father figure (by modern standards). At first he doesn’t drag his new son into his insane lifestyle. Eventually he decides it may work as a sort of therapy. It would allow Jason Todd to see that the would could be made into a better place. Batman tries to reprimand him when Jason gets too rough with the bad guys, but doesn’t go far enough. But, as a parent, I can understand that we sometimes overlook our children’s flaws.
After Jason Todd’s death came Tim Drake, Red Robin. The New 52 continuity’s time compression of 5-6 years from the first appearance of Super Heroes meant that it made more sense for Drake to have always been Red Robin rather than the third Robin. From what I’ve seen, he appears to have had the best father-son relationship with Bruce of all the kids so far. I think it may stem from his hacker mentality and his ability to relate to Bruce’s state of mind better than the others. Before the New 52, he discovered Batman’s identity and used it to show Bruce he was smart enough to be the next Robin. Tim Drake cemented the notion that Batman needs a Robin to ground him as Batman had become more reckless and violent after Jason Todd’s death. In a sense Drake is Batman’s redemption and his path to salvation. When Damian Wayne, who we’ll talk about next, shows up, he beats Drake to within an inch of his life because he sees Tim as a competitor for his father’s affections. That lead Tim to assume the mantle of Red Robin and strike it out on his own. At times he seems to be even closer and in a better place with his relationship to Bruce than Dick and I think it’s because Bruce was flying blind when he was raising Dick while Tim was his third child.
That brings us to Damian Wayne. Interestingly, he appears to be a mix of Jason Todd’s personality with physical skills even better than Dick’s. (I skipped the girl Robins as they don’t exist anymore) He was raised by his mother, Talia al Ghul, in a pretty messed up life in which he was trained by the League of Assassins. Eventually Talia says he is ready to have some fatherly influence and introduces Bruce to his kid….that she obtained by essentially roofie-ing him. After his upbringing, it’s no surprise that he’s a huge mess. Bruce tries to contain Damian’s wild tendencies, but “dies” before he can do much. That leaves Dick as foster father for Damian and he earns Damian’s respect and obedience throughout Grant Morrison’s run on Batman and Robin Vol 1. When Bruce comes back, he resumes his role as Damian’s father. In Batman and Robin Vol 2 Bruce finally comes to terms with his parents’ death and resolves to be the father he never had to Damian. As written in the New 52 Bruce seems to be taking a subtly different parenting tactic with Damian. While he occasionally forbade the other Robins to participate in various missions, he seemed to really try and protect Damian just a tiny bit more than the other kids. In Batman Incorporated Vol 2 he specifically forbade Robin from various missions in an attempt to keep him alive. Of course, Damian is currently dead, having been killed by Talia in a bit of a jealous rage that Damian chose Bruce’s path over hers. Because of the way that Damian really softened Bruce in a different way than his adopted kids, I hope that Damian is allowed to stay dead. In the same way that we wouldn’t accept Thomas or Martha Wayne’s resurrection because it’s a key part of the Batman backstory, I think it could be powerful if he not only lost another Robin, but his one and only biological son. He’d have lost the generation before and the generation after and I think it could be a pretty powerful story element. I guess it remains to be seen what happens.
Additionally, there’s Alfred who is more than just Bruce’s butler – Alfred’s his confidant. I would maintain that, of everyone in Bruce’s life, he’s the most honest and most trusting of Alfred. He admits things to Alfred that he doesn’t tell his own kids, much less Batgirl or Batwoman. At the end of Death of the Family, it’s to Alfred (not the others who really need to hear it) that he explains why he is positive that Joker doesn’t know who they are and didn’t get into the Bat Cave. Various origin stories have changed at exactly what point Alfred ended up raising Bruce, but Alfred is the closest he has to a father figure and Alfred is the only person who can discipline and tell Bruce off.
That leaves Barbara Gordon, Batgirl then Oracle before the New 52 seems to have tragically removed her time as Oracle. She’s the odd duck in this equation. Like Tim, she proved herself to Bruce. Unlike Tim, she has a father and so wasn’t adopted as a Wayne. She’s an outsider in their public lives – what reason does Barbara Gordon have for hanging around Bruce Wayne other than when she’s dating Dick Grayson? In their hero lives she works with the men and boys. Since the reboot it appears she spends more time doing her own thing until Batman puts out the Bat Family signal, so to speak. Back when she was Oracle, not only did she run the Birds of Prey, but she also was constantly working as Batman’s electronic backup. Stepping up as hacker/researcher when Tim Drake was unavailable to do so. Pre-New 52 I think she had a better relationship with Bruce, now I’m not as sure.
So how does Batman do as the head of this family? Overall he seems to be doing better in the New 52 when you look at all the relationships as a whole. However, individually, he is still having disturbing levels of mistrust in kids he raised – it’s not like any of the Bat Family are villains who had a heel face turn. During Court of Owls he failed to fully bring Dick into the fold even though the Court of Owls specifically concerned him. He didn’t turn to the rest of the Bat Family until Night of the Owls. So Bruce is once again left drowning when he doesn’t have to be. Seen within the context of parenthood, it can be difficult for some parents to accept the help of their children. It’s an admission of weakness. When your kids are small you are a god or a super hero. You know everything and you are strong enough to do everything they need. During Death of the Family he refused to explain himself to the rest of the family. In the end he only explained things to Alfred. A family needs leadership and Bruce is definitely capable of providing that. Bruce’s problems at the head of the family are two-fold: a refusal to show weakness and a refusal to properly use his lieutenants. Maybe it’s because he was so young when his parents died, but Bruce never learned that with your family, weakness is not a bad thing. It’s not like Bruce is a king and his kids are waiting for a sign of weakness to assume the throne. Family exists to help you through your weak times. Family, especially a paramilitary or mafia-like family (although Bruce would likely object to the comparison), also needs the head to be able to delegate. In a regular family that’s what chores are: delegation of simpler tasks so the head(s) of the family can focus on the important or complicated stuff. While Bruce will call out to the Robins (present and former) in a pinch, he doesn’t tend to pre-plan with them unless it’s one of those huge storylines. Especially since his team has so many different assets – Dick is acrobatic, Todd is unafraid to be violent (which may be needed for some of the criminals), Tim is a computer wizard, Barbara has connections in the police department and could also use being a female – either to get key information from unsuspecting men or to blend in with other women in places that Bruce and the others cannot go. For example, I think there’s room for a Bat Story that could be anything as simple as Barbara overhearing some female baddies talking too loosely in the women’s restroom to being able to infiltrate in a culture where men and women are segregated from each other (like the middle east).
I think as we mature as comic readers and as comic writers explore new stories, we will continue to see Batman mature and perhaps become a better head of the family. After all, who wants to see him suffer the fate of the animated continuity in which, by the time of Batman Beyond he is a crotchety old man living alone?