With all the buzz surrounding Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Gotham at the moment, it got me to thinking about the Dark Knight's origins.
The thing is, though, they just happen to go a lot further back than his first comic-book appearances - for one very creepy reason:
The inspiration for the Dark Knight is very, very dark indeed.
Get ready for...Spring-Heeled Jack...
His First Appearance
Way back in 1838, in newly-Victorian England, reports started coming in of a mysterious figure roaming the countryside near London.
Hidden by the darkness, he would attack young women, tearing at their clothing with his talons.
Which, funnily enough, sounds an awful lot like another masked figure - only Batman tends to focus his attentions on evil-doers, rather than young women.
Soon, word spread, and a first-hand account of the creature was published. This monster, 18-year-old Jane Alsop insisted, "vomited forth a quantity of blue and white flames from his mouth," and "tore at her neck and arms with his claws".
Who Was 'Jack'?
Many at the time believed that 'Jack' was a monster - capable of almost inconceivable speed, and leaping up to 20 feet at a time.
The official response, though, was that all of his sightings were instead linked to a letter sent to the Lord Mayor of London, and published by him in early 1838:
"It appears that some individuals have laid a wager with a mischievous and foolhardy companion (name as yet unknown) that he durst not [does not dare] take upon himself the task of visiting many of the villages near London in three disguises - a ghost, a bear and a devil"
Many suspected an aristocrat: Henry Beresford, Marquess of Waterford, a popular man-about-town of the time - but nothing was ever proven.
(Wait? A wealthy young man, suspected by many of being a notorious figure, cloaked by the night? Did Bruce Wayne have a Victorian Great-grandfather?)
And so, a legend grew of an aristocrat who traveled the countryside terrorizing young women, much like Jack the Ripper did fifty years later in London itself.
The Sightings Continue
For the next few decades, rumors of 'Jack', and his crimes, spread further - and though they became less frequent, people all over England spoke of mysterious attacks on mail coaches, of assault against women, and by 1877, even of an attack on a group of soldiers.
Rumors spread that he was a demon, summoned to Earth by occult devil-worshippers, and even that he may not have been of this world - in much the same way Batman is traditionally seen by the criminals he pursues.
The next development, though, was stranger still...
'Jack' Becomes a Hero
After the 1870s, word of 'Jack' became less common and, eventually, he began to appear in fiction. He first appeared as a sort of melodramatic anti-hero, and then, later, as something close to a superhero.
In the hands of Arthur Burrage, an author of pulpy 'penny dreadfuls', 'Jack' became:
"a wealthy aristocrat who assumed the disguise of a devilish, bat-winged avenger of the night, maintained a secret underground lair and used his athletic and technological skills to battle evil-doers
So, yeah - Just like Batman.
The thing is, though, 'Jack' wasn't done - long after the creation of Batman...
Throughout the latter part of the 20th Century, 'Jack' slowly began to appear again - even crossing the Atlantic, appearing in North Carolina in 1973 - described as "a gaunt, long haired man with pointed ears and glowing red eyes, taking leaps they estimated at 50 or 60 feet."
In Texas, in 1979, residents "saw a creature, described as ten feet tall with pointed ears, cross a football field in just a few strides - like those taken by an astronaut on the moon."
And, right up to the present day - Jack keeps on appearing.
In 2012, he reportedly terrorized a family in England, who claimed to see "a mysterious ‘dark figure with no features’ dart across the road in front of them before leaping 15ft over a roadside bank."
But Who - Or What - Is 'Jack'?
Many still believe that Jack is a demon, or an extraterrestrial, but the real source of his many sightings seems to be a lot less otherworldly.
Sceptical observers have long pointed out that sightings such as 'Jack''s are usually simply stories, that through the acts of copycats, or the creation of mass hysteria, become urban legends - and in this case, actual fiction.
And, eventually - albeit indirectly - Batman himself.
In this case, that letter up above, which suggested the culprit? It was published before any reports came in of 'Jack''s activities. Which might mean that his victims were too scared to speak up before - which could certainly be true if he was an aristocrat - or it could suggest that many of those who claimed to be assaulted by 'Jack' were simply copycats.
Whatever the source of the stories, though - I for one am never going to look at Batman quite the same way again - not even as a cute little kid in [Gotham](series:1127075)...