It’s that time of year when an iconic character spends the night gallivanting across rooftops knowing if we’re sleeping or if we’re awake, and most importantly, knowing if we’ve been bad or good. I refer, of course, to Gotham City’s protector, Batman – a character whose contemporary grit finds a comfortable place as a part of the annual warm and fuzzy holiday traditions.
As I started thinking about seasonal reads for this time of year, I realized that every comic that I was able to come up off the top of my head that had anything remotely to do with Christmastime happened to be a Batman story. With countless comic stories dating back to the character's beginning, animated episodes galore, and, of course, the evergreen ear worm of “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells”, it begs the question: what is it about Batman stories that lend themselves so well with this time of year? And can these stories show how Batman’s character has evolved over the years?
Part of the reason for the unexpected Batman holiday tradition might be the unlikely crossover between the hero and one of the most famous Christmas characters of all. The very first Batman Christmas-themed story from back in 1941 lifted names and iconography from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol without really being any sort of direct adaptation – something that would be rectified decades later, in one of the most successful Batman graphic novels to date, but we’ll get to that later.
This first story, which appeared in Batman #9 and was called, simply, “Christmas,” starts with Bruce Wayne giving gifts to the orphans of Gotham, when he hears one of the boys being made fun of for believing in Santa. Later, he learned that the boy, Timmy, isn’t really an orphan, but the son of a criminal jailed for burglary, theft, and murder, but Bob Crachitt has always maintained his innocence, claiming that he was framed.Batman and Robin eventually track down the real culprit and lure him to the scene of the crime, where a white figure claiming to be the ghost of the murdered guard compels him to confess to the crime. (The ghost is actually a disguised Batman, of course.) The true culprit does so and is arrested, Cratchitt is released and reunited with Timmy and everyone can be assured that Santa Claus indeed does exist.
Even though the story has its own Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchitt, Batman is hardly a Scrooge at this point; if anything, this colorful, crusading hero is much more of a Santa Claus figure. The idea of Batman as a grim and serious dark avenger is definitely true to how he was portrayed during his first year, but once Robin was introduced in 1940, the character softened up more, becoming the smiley, blue-and-grey clad crimefighter with a kid sidekick seen during his 1960s pop culture peak. In “Christmas,” the essential kindness at the core of the Batman character is on full display; he doesn’t really want to hurt anybody, and ultimately only fights crime in Gotham because he wants to ensure another little kid will never have to go through the kind of personal tragedy he did witnessing his parents' murder.
As Batman was recreated in darker tones in the wake of the end of the mid-60s Batmania craze – a craze that caused an unknown source in California to rewrite the traditional Christmas song “Jingle Bells” to reference Batman smelling, Robin laying an egg, and the Joker stealing the Batmobile, according to experts in social folklore – his behavior became more and more antisocial and downright Scrooge-like… something that has been referenced as recently as this year’s Batman: Urban Legends #10, wherein members of his crime fighting family discuss ways in which they can connect with him during the holidays. Working together on a case, unsurprisingly, brings social breakthrough. He is nothing if not focused, to the detriment of his own wellbeing, although he eventually knows where and who he’s supposed to be.
A definitive creator in Batman history, Neil Adams, provides a middle ground between the golden age and modern take on Batman’s character in Batman #219 from 1969. “The Silent Night of the Batman'' presents a Dark Knight that is somewhere between the creature of the night and the grinning caped crusader of the Silver Age. The story features Batman taking a break from crime fighting to enjoy the camaraderie of singing carols alongside members of the Gotham City Police Department. Batman’s joyful singing (yes, singing) is interspersed with vignettes of the symbol of the Batman looming high among Gotham citizens, inspiring them to rediscover the kindness inside their own hearts. Whether it’s returning stolen Christmas gifts or reconsidering potential suicides, by the end of the night Batman marvels at how no crime has been reported in the entire city. The symbol of the Bat encourages the people of Gotham to be their best.
Although Batman and related characters have continued to appear in holiday-themed stories throughout the regular Batman comic book line and assorted DC holiday specials in recent years, it’s perhaps fitting that the most high-profile Batman Christmas story in the past few decades returned to the same source material as the very first Gotham City Christmas tale: Lee Bermejo’s 2011 graphic novel Batman: Noel, which once again takes inspiration from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
The story revolves around Batman stalking a man named Bob, forced to work as a bagman for the Joker because his son Tim is in poor health with a bad leg. Bob keeps the money and Batman chooses to stake him out all night on Christmas Eve, knowing that the Joker will show up looking for it. Throughout the evening several classic DC characters stand in for the ghosts: Jason Todd for Marley, Catwoman for past, Superman for the present, and eventually the Joker for future in the finale. Bob demonstrates to Batman the kind of man he really is by refusing to shoot the Joker after Batman manages to wrestle the Joker’s gun away. The end shows Bob with a job, medical care, and a real Christmas tree all from Wayne Enterprises. The last shot is a healthier Tim leaping around a snowy street, emulating his new hero.
Naturally a story that has endured so long will be adapted again and again. It helps that A Christmas Carol has practically passed into the realm of fairy tale, with characters transcending into archetypes. Throughout the years, Scrooge has become a symbol of derision for how he behaves at the start, but the change of heart he undergoes at the end has inspired hope for more than a century– that, in a world that seems so uncaring and where the greedy and callous hold all the power and influence, someone can get their soul back and see the value in helping others.
For superhero comics, Batman has become the perfect Scrooge stand-in. Unlike Scrooge, Batman really isn't cold or cruel, it’s just that his kind nature can sometimes appear to be obscured by his devotion to fighting crime.
Batman: Noel is a genuinely heartwarming story and goes down as not only arguably the best Christmas Batman comic book but maybe one of the best Batman stories in general, not only because of Bermejo's stunning art, because of how deep it goes into exploring the depths of Batman’s character, and particularly how kind Batman truly is, even at his darkest.
This, too, highlights part of Batman’s unexpected seasonal appeal: he is, in some way, a personification of part of the holidays’ appeal – the idea of finding hope in the darkness. In practical terms, this speaks to the holiday’s timing on the calendar, coming so close to the winter solstice and among the deadness and quiet cold of Gotham’s dreary streets, but there’s a metaphorical element to it as well: celebrating love and goodwill, and finding strength and support inside that, and the potential for all of us to provide that for other people.
So be it in comics or in other media Batman is often tied to the Christmas season, and some of the best Christmas themed comics are Batman stories and some of the best Batman stories are set around Christmas. So, I encourage you to dive into the vast array of Bat stories set around this time of year and remember what the season is really about: kindness to others, giving, and celebration with family, found or otherwise. And, of course, please keep in mind: Batman does not smell, it is physically impossible for Robin to lay an egg, Batman is a member of AAA, and, Lord willing, the Joker will be going to Arkham soon.