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The Bat-Family: Batman's best supporting characters

Batman family
(Image credit: DC)

Bruce Wayne may have all the gadgets money can buy, but the one thing he can't fit in his utility belt is friends.

From the introduction of the original Robin to his partnership with James Gordon, and even his on-again/off-again relationship with Catwoman, Batman has a select group of people he relies on. This extended Bat-family helps make Batman who he is, and helps define him by their associations.

The Bat-family will have to pull together in 2022 however, as both in comics with the 'Shadows of the Bat' event and in the game Gotham Knights Batman will be absent from Gotham - and someone needs to pick up the slack.

With that in mind, we're counting down the best members of the enterprising Batman family.

Dr. Leslie Thompkins

Batman family

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With all the fights Batman gets into, duct tape and stitches from Alfred (when he was alive) can only get you so far. Dr. Leslie Thompkins is in effect the Wayne family physician, often dealing with Batman and his associates' wounds from their war on crime. But she's more than that.

Introduced by Dennis O'Neil and Dick Giordano back in 1976's Detective Comics #457, Thompkins was revealed to be a family friend and medical colleague of Bruce Wayne's father and was one of several stand-in parental figures after Thomas and Martha's murders. And it was that tragic event that pushed Thompkins to set up her own street clinic to help the poor and indigent of Gotham City.

And she's not afraid to stand up to Batman, taking him to task on more than one occasion for his deeds and working outside the law. She's criticized him for his penchant for bringing children such as Robin, Spoiler, and Batgirl into dangerous situations, while still being an open door whenever he needed it.

Tim Drake / Robin / Red Robin

Batman family

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To some, Tim Drake is just one in a long line of boy wonders to take the mantle of Robin and fight alongside Batman. But for fans who came of age in the '90s and '00s, Tim Drake is the definitive Robin.

"[Tim Drake] is 'the smart one' of the Bat-family, the thinker and planner," writer Fabian Nicieza told Newsarama. I mean, of course, Bruce Wayne/Batman is what he is, and Tim isn't quite there yet, but Tim at 17 has a more developed intellect than Bruce at 17 did. That's not to say Dick Grayson or Barbara Gordon are dumb, of course, they're not, but Tim's level of thinking is a bit... thicker... than theirs. For me, Dick is about superior reflexive thinking, Barbara about superior operational thinking, and Tim is about superior comprehensive, or all-encompassing, thinking.

Unlike his predecessors, Tim Drake's time as the main Robin showed him as a more holistic hero, soaking up experiences and training like a sponge no matter what the source. At age nine he was able to figure out Batman's secret identity as Bruce Wayne, and as a teenager, he grudgingly earned the respect of Batman arch-nemesis Ra's al Ghul.

Damian Wayne / Robin

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Bruce Wayne's single-minded war on crime as Batman all began when he found himself an orphan in the bloody shadow of his parents' murdered bodies. The presence Bruce's parents has on him to this day plays a big part in who he is as a man, so what would he be like as a father? And what kind of son would he raise?

Those are the kinds of questions raised by Damian Wayne. Introduced by Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert in 2006's Batman #655, he literally was the son that Bruce Wayne never knew he had. Conceived from a one-night tryst between Batman and Talia al Ghul and subsequently kept a secret from the world, Damian was raised by the League of Assassins to be the ultimate warrior. Impetuous and unrefined, Damian still sees the truth in his father's quest and abandons the League to fight by his father's side and try to gain his approval.

Damian is the current Robin, adventuring alongside his father, as well as forming a bond with Superman’s son as the 'Super-Sons,' and leading the Teen Titans. 

Barbara Gordon / Batgirl / Oracle

Batman family

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Although she's genetically the daughter of top cop James Gordon, Batman is another kind of father figure to Barbara Gordon, who has fought crime as both Batgirl and Oracle.

Barbara Gordon was created back in the mid-'60s when the Adam West Batman television show was clamoring for a female perspective on being a hero. Barbara was ushered into comics continuity in 1967's Detective Comics #359 under the sizzling story title 'The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl,' showing her as a police commissioner's daughter who dressed up as a female Batman for a costume ball and ends up halting a kidnapping attempt while in costume. Although admonished by Batman to stop her costume crime-fighting, Barbara's days as a hero were only just beginning.

Working as a librarian by day, for decades Barbara fought crime first-hand as Batgirl in both solo adventures and team-ups with Batman. In 1988's Batman: The Killing Joke, she was targeted by the Joker in an attempt to punish James Gordon and left paralyzed after being shot at point-blank range. That tragic event took a while for readers and even DC's comic editors and writers to process, but a year later writer Jim Ostrander started a new chapter for Barbara as wheelchair-bound but highly capable Oracle. One part hacker, one part traffic control, Barbara became the key source of information for Batman and other heroes while adapting to her current situation and learning combat techniques she could use from her wheelchair.

In 2011, Barbara Gordon returned to her role as Batgirl thanks to some technical innovations. In recent months, Babs has merged the idea of Batgirl with the Birds of Prey to create an informal team of Batgirls with Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown.

Jason Todd / Robin / Red Hood

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It's hard to measure up when you're constantly compared to someone else. And it's harder yet to come back from the dead. But Jason Todd has done both and lived to tell the tale.

Originally introduced in the '80s as a replacement for Dick Grayson (moving on to his current Nightwing identity), Todd first met Batman when he was caught trying to steal the wheels off the Batmobile. Admiring that spunk, Batman took in the indigent Jason Todd and groomed him to become the second Robin. Although less acrobatic than his predecessor, Todd had more of a fighter's spirit having grown up on the street. But at the end of the day, Todd could never be the original Robin, and fans voted via 1-900 number to have him killed off by the Joker.

But Jason Todd wouldn't stay dead, and the character returned to life post-Infinite Crisis. For the next decade, Todd became the prodigal son of the Bat-family that never came home, fighting on his own as a violent antihero and never quite fitting into the mold of the traditional Batman supporting cast.

In recent months, however, Todd has found himself back in the proverbial wings of the Batman family.

Selina Kyle / Catwoman

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Who else can get under Bruce Wayne's skin and still remain on his good side as much as Selina Kyle? Through her years fighting against and fighting alongside Batman, Catwoman has shown him that she's more than just a villain, and more than just one in a long line of women to stand beside Bruce Wayne.

Originally inspired by actress Jean Harlow, Catwoman has grown from skirted Betty Page type to be a modern-day Robin Hood of sorts, using her full arsenal of skills to stomp out injustice through frequently less-than-legal methods.

As far as Bruce and Selina's relationship goes, it's complicated. Their on-again-off-again relationship seemingly peaked when the pair very nearly got married - however, Catwoman ended up leaving Batman at the altar. 

Batman and Catwoman's relationship is currently in a liminal state, although former Batman writer Tom King is in the middle of an alternate continuity storyline where the two do end up together, and even have a child, in Batman/Catwoman.

Dick Grayson / Robin / Nightwing / Batman

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Trust is a big issue. And it seems of all the heroes that Batman has chosen to fight alongside, it's Dick Grayson he trusts most. Trusts with all his secrets, and as we've seen on more than one occasion, trust to take on the mantle of Batman when Bruce could not.

Originally introduced in 1940 as a pint-sized injection of youth into the often dour Detective Comics, Dick Grayson was the first Robin and, to many, the best. Far from being a simple junior version of Batman the way some sidekicks are, Dick Grayson-as-Robin was a spry and energetic soul with tremendous athletic ability.

Through the years as Grayson discarded the Robin guise for the more adult Nightwing, he showed he learned from the guidance of Batman but wasn't afraid of being his own man. Although he's had adventures on his own and with the Teen Titans, Nightwing's best place remains at the side of Batman as more than a sidekick but as a partner.

James Gordon / Batman

Batman family

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Batman fights crime outside of the confines of the law, and police commissioner James Gordon is the one who might balance the needs of the law with the needs of Gotham City as a whole.

Introduced way back in Batman's first appearance, 1939's Detective Comics #27, Gordon is one of the Caped Crusader's oldest confidantes and allies. Much like Inspector Lestrade to Sherlock Holmes, he's Batman's man inside the system whether he likes it or not. On most occasions, it is Gordon who calls Batman in via his trusty Bat-signal to consult on a case the police can't solve on their own, but several times Gordon has served as a surprising backup just when Batman needed him.

The best example of this was one of the final 'New 52' Batman arcs, in which Bruce Wayne is presumed dead for a brief time and Gordon actually takes his place as Batman - complete with mechanized Bat-armor. 

Alfred Pennyworth

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Whatever you do, don't call Alfred Pennyworth a mere butler. In various stories, he's shown to be a former actor, combat medic, and British Special Forces agent. But most of all he's Batman's chief confidante and Bruce Wayne's primary father figure.

Although originally introduced as a comedic funnyman to offset Batman, Alfred grew to become a multi-faceted and stabilizing force for Master Bruce. And of all the people we've listed so far, he's one of the only ones who are unafraid for disagreeing with Batman, providing a cynical view on Batman's high-minded goals and providing some much-needed grounding when he needs it.

In some ways, Alfred is Batman's Batman due to how essential he is to Bruce Wayne. Although he'll like never don a costume and seriously go out crime-fighting on his own, Alfred confronts injustice in his own way and makes Batman as good as he is.

In the finale of Tom King's Batman run in 2020, Bane ends up killing Alfred during the 'City of Bane' storyline. As expected, that seriously traumatized not only Bruce Wayne, but the entire Bat-family.

Thomas & Martha Wayne

Batman family

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How can a pair of characters only seen in flashbacks be the most important supporting characters in Batman's life? It's all about the effect they've had And the Waynes, through their life and their tragic death added the spark and the motivation for Bruce Wayne to go from rich kid to vigilante. Take out any other character from Batman's life and he's still Batman but if Thomas and Martha Wayne weren't who they were in the comics, Batman would never exist.

Thomas Wayne was a gifted surgeon and one of the foremost philanthropists in Gotham City. With Martha, they were one of Gotham's de facto royalty. Their deaths outside a crowded movie house set Bruce down a path that would eventually lead to becoming Batman. In Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Batman: Dark Victory, the duo proposed that the murder of such a prominent family set off a chain of events that led Gotham to become the dark city that we know today, showing criminals what that no crime was off-limits and showing cops that they couldn't solve everything.

In several outside-continuity stories, it's been suggested that perhaps Bruce got a bit of his costumed crusader-y way from his father, as Thomas Wayne is shown to have dressed up and fought crime in Flashpoint and The Untold Tales of the Batman, and even in the "New 52's" Earth 2. That dark Flashpoint version has even made its way to mainstream continuity in recent years.

Chris Arrant

Newsarama Senior Editor Chris Arrant has covered comic book news for Newsarama since 2003, and has also written for USA Today, Life, Entertainment Weekly, Publisher's Weekly, Marvel Entertainment, TOKYOPOP, AdHouse Books, Cartoon Brew, Bleeding Cool, Comic Shop News, and CBR. He is the author of the book Modern: Masters Cliff Chiang, co-authored Art of Spider-Man Classic, and contributed to Dark Horse/Bedside Press' anthology Pros and (Comic) Cons. He has acted as a judge for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the Harvey Awards, and the Stan Lee Awards. Chris is a member of the American Library Association's Graphic Novel & Comics Round Table.