Are Batman Characters Portrayal of Heroes & Villains Influenced by Lombrosian Ideals?

The Dark KnightComic books have largely been ignored by academics, yet analysis of their basic themes can shed light on many areas of interest to criminologists. In particular the Batman universe containing arguably the most realistic superhero character provides a lens through which to consider the theories of Lombroso and Baudrillard.

Cesare Lombroso (a pioneering Positivist Criminologist) put forth the notion of the born criminal:

The born criminal had a low moral stance, he cannot be cured, criminality is a family trait, he is a savage with tattoos and a different look (deformed jaw line, cheekbones, arches and palms, also ears) to the rest of society. (Wolfgang, 1961: 369-71), Lombroso argued the insane criminal commits a crime because of his/her insanity.

In order to analyze Batman and The Joker and examine their social impact, it is important to define various themes.


Definition: Strong moral stance, defender of the people
State Response: Depends, some are targets others are not
Origins: Tragic event and/or scientific disaster
Societal Response: Enable
Sanity: Not necessarily sane


Definition: Enemy of hero with low moral stance
State Response: Legitimate target
Origins: Tragic event and/or scientific disaster
Societal Response: Destroy evil
Sanity: Insane


Definition: Breaks the laws of the state. Moral stance depends on standpoint of criminal.
State Response: Legitimate target
Origins: Genetic, physiological, social or psychological
Societal Response: Rehabilitation or fix the defect of the criminal
Sanity: Dependant upon the type of the criminal

For the purposes of this study it is crucial to make a distinction between the criminal and the villain. The criminal breaks the laws of the state, originates from a number of places, and the goal of society is to fix the defect. The villain simply is the antagonist to the hero. Both Batman and The Joker blur the lines, crossing between two definitions: Batman is a hero and a criminal (he uses criminal acts to further his goals) and The Joker is a villain (Batman’s antagonist) and a criminal.

Batman’s criminality raises interesting questions which show how important it is to study the comic medium. Batman is our hero yet he commits many wrongs to achieve his aims. Villainy has clear links to the Lombrosian theme of the born criminal. Villains are presented as being abnormal, different to the rest of society and in need of a cure (Reynolds, 1992: 67). They are placed in Arkham Asylum with the hope that they will be rehabilitated.

batmanThe Hero

Batman is the hero of various comic series (Detective Comics, Batman, Justice League etc) and has a strong moral stance. Batman is portrayed to be more than a man: he is a symbol that strikes fear into his enemies. This argument has been well illustrated in Christopher Nolan’s movie The Dark Knight (2008) and the recent Batman: RIP comic book run written by Grant Morrison.
In The Dark Knight, Batman gives up what he knows is best for him in order to save the city: he takes the blame for the murders committed by Harvey Dent so that the city can flourish. Only his butler, Alfred, Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox and Police Commissioner Jim Gordon seem to know the truth (with Gordon being the only one who knows for certain). Batman’s mythos in the film is portrayed to pass on with Gordon’s final speech: that Batman is more than just a hero, he is a symbol. This is elaborated further in Grant Morrison’s Batman, where Bruce Wayne dies. Dick Grayson (the first Robin) takes the cowl (Batman R.I.P, Final Crisis Morrison: 2008, Batman: Battle for the Cowl: Daniel, 2009) because he realizes that the city needs a Batman. The city needs its symbol: it needs its moral compass.

jokerThe Villain

The Joker is the enemy of Batman: he is the ying to Batman’s yang. He has a low moral stance evidenced through the acts he commits. In The Killing Joke (2008) he cripples Barbara Gordon and in Death in the Family (1988-89) he kills Jason Todd (Batman’s young sidekick at the time). The Joker’s origin (that which we know for certain) was a tragic affair. The man he once was fell into a vat of acid, bleaching his skin and scarring his face into a perpetual grin. Society wants to stop The Joker and many members of the public (Jim Gordon for example) have been close to killing him. Further he is clearly clinically insane and has been committed to Arkham Aslyum on many occasions.

The Criminal

Police Commissioner Jim Gordon has often questioned his relationship with Batman. For example, in Nolan’s 2005 movie Batman Begins, he knows that Batman is a good influence on the city but he also knows that he is an illegal one and in many ways is just as damaging as the villains he stops. Both Batman and his villains are breaking the laws that Gordon is sworn to uphold.
Batman’s criminality is shown to be a family trait: he takes in youngsters and trains them up to aid him with his vigilantism. Recently, this included his own biological son: Damian.
All the characters in the Batman universe can be viewed as insane. The Joker is clearly insane, committing atrocities for his own amusement. Batman can also be argued to be equally as insane: does a sane person dress up as a Bat and fight villains? Batman might well be suffering from a type of madness known as split personality (Reynolds, 1992: 67). Bruce Wayne (Batman’s out-of-mask identity) creates a different personality (his public identity) to cover up his real identity as Batman.


Art by gingashi


To examine the idea of rebirth, Foucault’s work on identity in The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction (1990) will be used. Foucault argued that an identity is continually under construction and can never drastically change. An identity is created and changes, evolving as time goes on. This theme will be illustrated by portraying the argument that a person’s identity over time will die and be replaced with a new identity. This is the idea of rebirth: a character has died spiritually and been replaced by a new form of themselves. For example, Bruce Wayne died at the age of eight and was reborn as Batman. That version of Bruce Wayne would never live again, it would never be seen what he would have become; instead Batman has taken his place (Halsall, 2010: 33).
For example, in the comic Red Robin issue 14 (July 2010), it was argued that Batman was born in Crime Alley: the place where Bruce witnessed his parents being killed resulting in his transformation. In The Killing Joke, (2008) writer Alan Moore presents one of the many Joker origins that have occured over the years. His memory and mind have been warped to such an extent that on many occasions he cannot remember a life before his days as The Joker. Whatever his true origin, the result was that he was born again as The Joker. Jack Nicholson’s Joker says it perfectly in the 1989 Tim Burton film Batman: ’I’ve been dead once, it’s very liberating.’

These damaging effects on the two characters’ personalities effectively makes them criminals from birth (they were reborn when they became Batman or The Joker) and therefore fit the Lombrosian theme of the born criminal.

The Joker’s identity is constantly evolving and changing throughout various media as time goes on. Throughout the character’s existence, he has been a psychopathic clown, a comical prankster, a highly sexualized serial killer, a self mutilator and an anarchical monster. His ever-changing personality was explained by Grant Morrison (Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, 2004) when he referred to The Joker as having ‘super-sanity’: he is so insane that he is actually sane.

Are these characters Lombrosian?

Whether or not these characters are complete Lombrosian analogues is questionable. In terms of the insane criminal, both Batman and Joker fit this category nicely, however it is questionable that the two are born criminals. Both Batman and Joker have shown that they cannot be cured of their condition. They are both savage in their methods such as fighting in order to solve their problems: The Joker will kill you whereas Batman will break your bones. Both characters look different to the rest of society. The Joker’s mangled cheekbones and deformed jaw line fit this perfectly and Batman’s ears are clearly not human and are very distinctive.

Yet neither character has every physical abnormality to make them a born criminal. What is more, one of the characters has some of this attributes but the other does not. The Joker has the essential low moral stance and is sometimes portrayed with tattoos (Allstar Batman and Robin Miller, 2008)


There is no proof that his criminality is a family trait and if The Killing Joke (2008) is taken as fact, the opposite can be seen. Batman clearly shows criminality as a family trait with his training of various Robins and his other allies. Yet Batman has a strong moral stance and has never been shown to have tattoos. This suggests that society has grown and adapted over time in order to move away from this stereotypes. Yet comic book characters such as Batman and Joker who have over a seventy five year history are constrained by their own medium: they are unable to change drastically in look because they are cultural icons. Consequently they keep Lombrosian attributes.

This article has examined what Lombroso’s themes of criminality are and their relation to the Batman universe. Terms such as hero, villain, criminal and re-birth were defined in order to examine the character’s attributes. The two characters chosen (Batman and The Joker) seem to show Lombrosian themes. They were both clearly the insane criminal yet neither were completely the born criminal. Therefore it would seem that as time has passed the Batman universe has continued to progress with it. Yet it would seem that this original Lombrosian ideas that many criminologists would argue are now archaic still have a place in mainstream media. Consequently they will still affect the ways in which we think about crime and the people that are committing crime.


Reporter: Luke Halsall


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