Batman and FDR: Alter Egos

Fighting Crime, the Depression, and Global Bad Guys

Steve Jones
Sep 18 · 6 min read
Batman, 1939. Fighting Depression-era crime. (DC Comics)

Batman turns 80 years old this September 21. Batman Day yearly highlights the Dark Knight’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in 1939.

But what else was going on 80 years ago? World War II had just started, with Germany invading Poland on September 1. And the United States was finishing its tenth year in the Great Depression.

The world was in desperate need of heroes. Superman had appeared a year earlier, and now the Batman. Superman, of course, was an alien come to Earth as a metaphorical Messiah.

But Batman lacked super powers. He was metaphorically and symbolically more like the flesh-and-blood man who had been battling political evils since 1932.

That was none other than Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Think about it. They were (are) millionaires (billionaires if you adjust for today’s dollars), they have similar origin stories, they both dedicated their lives to helping the downtrodden, and they both had cool stuff.

First Appearances

While FDR had once been assistant secretary of the navy and governor of New York, he made is real national appearance during the Great Depression, and because of it really. The stock market crashed in October 1929 when Republican Herbert Hoover was president. The Great Depression followed soon after. (Think Great Recession of 2008, only about 1,000 times worse.)

Hoover didn’t cause the Depression, but he didn’t help it much either. When economists were suggesting the United States start “deficit spending” to jump-start the economy, Hoover and most Republicans were against it. That would mean unbalancing the budget, and that was anathema to them.

FDR hit the scene in 1932, campaigning against Hoover, and recommending deficit spending. In fact, he had a New Deal for the American people, a plan that would involve public works projects, Social Security, conservation programs, and a host of other stuff. He won the presidency, of course, but he didn’t end the Depression. World War II did that. Nevertheless, FDR gave it all he had.

Seven years after FDR’s election came Bruce Wayne/Batman . Batman, the creation of Bob Kane and Bill Finger, bore a lot of resemblance to FDR (all of it probably unintended). Bruce Wayne was a millionaire, scion of a wealthy family. Wayne’s public persona was an arrogant prig, but his alter-ego, Batman, was all business, taking the fight to big mean villains like Joker, the Riddler, Scarecrow, and scads of mobsters that common everymen couldn’t hope to beat on their own.

By the time Batman arrived, Americans had already watched FDR do the very same thing. FDR, scion of a wealthy family, could have been a priggish snob, but he was all about helping others. As president he took on big mean villains like intransigent and irresponsible corporations, a scary economy and menacing foreign powers — all of which common everymen couldn’t hope to beat on their own.

Tragic Origins

Alright, they were both rich, they both showed up in the Depression, they both helped others. But there’s more. They both had tragic origin stories.

FDR really did start out as a priggish snob. If he hadn’t had a personal tragedy, he would probably have still been important politically, but morally worthless.

In 1921, at the age of 39, FDR contracted polio. Paralyzed from the waist down and unable to walk, FDR thought his life was over. Three years later he learned that warm mineral springs in Georgia could be therapeutic for his condition. He traveled there, and by taking the baths and exercise regimens he became stronger and more confident. He was never able to walk unassisted again, but at Warm Springs FDR reached down to his own humanity and found the strength to go on. The polio also burned the priggish snobbery off of him. He visited with the poorer class of people around Warm Springs, learned of their problems, and learned to listen. He recognized that, even with withered legs, he had been given much. He would use what he had to one day help people less fortunate than himself.

Bruce Wayne’s tragedy came when, as a child, he watched a thug shoot his parents to death in a street robbery. Swearing vengeance and vowing to fight crime, Wayne grew up to learn detective work, forensics, and martial arts. In Christopher Nolan’s latest incarnation of the Dark Knight, Wayne travels to the Himalayas to learn Ninja discipline and fighting skills; Nepal is his Warm Springs.

Both Men Lived in Mansions

The White House
Wayne Manor from the Nolanverse (Photo by Binesh Amarasekara, Flickr)

Bruce Wayne, of course, turned an extensive cave complex under his mansion home — Wayne Manor — into his base of operations. He spent millions of dollars on it.

FDR also authorized some subterranean work on the White House. After the US entered WWII, he okayed a bomb shelter under the East Wing. While it was under construction, a temporary tunnel linked the East Wing to a shelter beneath the nearby Treasury Building.

FDR also bought Warm Springs. He spent millions of dollars on it. It became his home-away-from-home, and when he was president he installed a “Little White House” there. That’s where he died in 1945 (in the company of his mistress, but that’s another story).

Both of Their Mansions Burned Down

The White House burning after a British attack, 1814
Waynor Manor burning in Batman Begins, 2005

They Both had Cool Cars

Batman’s Batmobile, regardless of version, is iconic. (Nolan’s Tumbler is great; Tim Burton’s 1989 version is nearly perfect.)

FDR also had a “batmobile,” of sorts. He loved to drive, but after the polio he could not use his legs. Unfazed, FDR had a car fitted out with hand controls for accelerator, clutch, and brakes. He probably did this to several cars, but the most famous was a 1931 Plymouth PA Phaeton convertible. He had it delivered to Warm Springs, and toured the countryside anytime he was there. Check this out from Jim Benjaminson in the Plymouth Bulletin (accessed at allpar.com), “FDR preferred open cars and loved to drive at break neck speeds through the country side — at times eluding the Secret Service guards that constantly surrounded him.”

FDR in his ‘31 Plymouth. (Allpar.com)
FDR’s 1936 Ford Phaeton (FDR Library and Museum)
FDR’s hand controls in the ’36 Ford. (FDR Library and Museum)
1941 Batmobile. Compare the lines to the ’36 Ford above. That year, at least, the car didn’t come in black. (DC Comics)

Attire

FDR did not wear a chest symbol, Kevlar armor, or a utility belt. However, he and Batman did have one piece of costuming in common.

They both wore capes!

FDR in classic cape.
Batman in classic cape. (Batman: The Animated Series, DC, Warner Bros.)

Other Great Stuff

Bruce Wayne/Batman invented (or perhaps had Lucius Fox invent) all manner of cool stuff for his crime-fighting crusade — everything from crime information computers (before they were commonplace) to an electronics embedded Kevlar cowl.

FDR did some inventing on his own. Never accepting of his own limitations, FDR invented a type of crutch that fit under the user’s armpit like ones in common use today. He also gets credit for an early folding wheelchair design.

No Fear

Oh yeah, one last thing. FDR and Batman both have good quotes about fear. When explaining his crusade against crime, Wayne (in Batman Begins) says, “I seek… a means to fight injustice. To turn fear against those who prey on the fearful.”

FDR, of course, summed it up nicely in his first inaugural address: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Resources and References
“The Plymouth Cars of Franklin Roosevelt (and Eleanor),” allpar.com
“Roosevelt Warm Springs: History,” rooseveltrehab.org
“Batman History,” legionsofgotham.org

Populiteracy

By Dr. Jones & Co.

Steve Jones

Written by

Author, historian, irreverent academic. Instagram @drjoness

Populiteracy

By Dr. Jones & Co.

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