Gotham: Who is the Scarecrow?

Batman's scariest villain, the Scarecrow is returning for Gotham Season 4.

Heart clenching crippling fear is returning to Gotham City. Fans dared to watch the preview for the coming season of Gotham were shocked and delighted at the promised return of the Scarecrow. We got to see a hint of the curse of Jonathan Crane in the show’s first season, but we’ll get more of him in Gotham Season 4.

Will Gotham survive the terror that always heralds Scarecrow’s arrival? Only time will tell, but if one examines the history of the Scarecrow, one will find that wherever this classic villain goes, terror and mayhem are always left in his wake. So with that in mind, be brave my fellow Gothamites, and come with me as we take a deep dive into the history of Jonathan Crane, the spine tingling Scarecrow!

The Comics

So who is the Scarecrow? First off, as we’ll see over and over again in this article, Scarecrow is one of the most visually stunning characters in the DCU. He strikes a wonderfully weird figure with his spindly limbs and expressionless burlap visage. As for his abilities, Scarecrow is the master of fear. Starting in the Silver Age, Scarecrow began using a series of weaponized fear toxins to test the will of Batman and Gotham City. Scarecrow’s greatest weapon is his ability to spread terror, so basically, he’s like the modern day media covered in twine and burlap. 

Scarecrow first appeared way back in 1941 in the pages of World’s Finest #3, making him one of the oldest Batman villains. Other than a few notables like Joker, Catwoman, and Hugo Strange, not many of those early Bat foes returned for a second appearance. But from these earliest days, it was clear that there was something terrifying and special about the Scarecrow.

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Created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane (and by that we mean the Scarecrow was created by Bill Finger while Bob Kane washed his ascots or something), Scarecrow was a villain ahead of his time. In the pages of World’s Finest #3, fans met a lanky college professor named Jonathan Crane. The anti-social Crane was obsessed with two things: the classic literary works of Washington Irving, particularly “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the study of fear. Crane was fascinated by fear and tested its effects on his hapless students. After being sacked for firing a gun in his classroom, Crane donned a Scarecrow suit, turned to a life of crime, and began terrorizing the society that rejected him (as one does).

In his earliest appearances, Scarecrow simply used his cunning and some guns. Scarecrow only made one more Golden Age appearance in Detective Comics #73 (1943) where Crane began a series of crimes inspired by children’s nursery rhymes. The story was a neat little bit of business, but holy crap, look how beautiful that freaking cover is!

Look at that image featuring an oversized emaciated Scarecrow taking on the Caped Crusaders. That is truly one of the most stunning covers of the Golden Age and might have had something to do with the fact that DC Comics would turn to Scarecrow once again during the Silver Age.

Scarecrow would remain dormant during the rest of the Golden Age, but would return in Batman #189 (1967) by Gardner Fox and Sheldon Moldoff. This reappearance of the Scarecrow was also marked by the first usage of Scarecrow’s fear toxin, a weaponized fear inducing chemical that became the horrific character’s calling card. And of course, since we’re talking Scarecrow, Batman #189 also sports an absolutely killer cover.

From 1967 forward, Scarecrow became a constant part of Batman’s rogues gallery. In Justice League of America #111 (1974) writer Len Wein (RIP Len, we already miss you) and artist Dick Dillin took Scarecrow from a standout Batman villain into a bad guy that could terrify the entire DC Universe. In this issue, Scarecrow joins other DC stalwart evildoers like Poison Ivy, Chronos, Mirror Master, and Shadow Thief as part of the Injustice Gang of the World.

Characters like Joker may get all the press, but Scarecrow has been an ever present and creepy presence in Batman’s world. For some great Scarecrow action, check out such iconic series as Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman: Hush, and Catwoman: When in Rome. And for you Vertigo heads, Crane makes an absolutely unforgettable appearance in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman #5 (1989) an issue dedicated to the concept of stark and unrelenting fear (ugh with the diner and the killing and the oh gosh!).

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But the terror of Jonathan Crane cannot just be contained in print…

Animated Terror

The Scarecrow’s first non-comic book appearance was in the 1968 The Batman/Superman Hour episode “The Great Scarecrow Scare.” In this classic ‘toon, Scarecrow is voiced by Ted Knight which is all sorts of awesome (“Okay Pookie, christen the boat before I drive you insane”). Knight’s Scarecrow would use knockout gas kept in explosive eggs to try and defeat Batman and Robin because I guess a hallucinatory drug was just to risqué for 1968 Saturday morning TV.

Meanwhile, At The Hall of Doom

Scarecrow was front and center in 1978’s Challenge of the Super Friends as a member of Lex Luthor’s Legion of Doom. For those of you under 35 years old, you have no idea how dopey but vital and influential this cartoon was to us comic book fans of a certain age. As a member of the Legion of Doom, Scarecrow would try and come up with ways to destroy those accursed Super Friends. I guess fear gas was still not flying with the censors at the times, so the LoD Scarecrow controlled flocks of birds to bedevil the Super Friends. You’d think Hawkman would be an automatic counter to that noise. Despite the seemingly harmless power, Scarecrow still popped off the TV screen as the Super Friends artists rendered him with an eerie look that greatly contrasted the saccharine animated fair of the era.

Things did take a turn for the horrific though in 1986’s Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians episode entitled “The Fear.” In this surprisingly deep episode, Scarecrow uses his fear transmitters (still no gas kids…gas didn’t fly in 1986 I guess…what if someone went to the dentist?) to force Batman to relive his worst fears. Batman, voiced by Adam West, had to relive the death of his parents thanks to Scarecrow’s machinations. So let’s unpack that. On Saturday morning, in 1986, there was an episode of Super Friends that addressed the death of the Waynes. This is some really heady stuff for the era because remember, Batman often shares screen time with a purple Space Monkey. Also, to hear Adam West wax poetic about Bruce Wayne’s fallen parents was just brilliant. Other than a throwaway line in the first episode, the death of Thomas and Martha was not often addressed on the classic Batman ’66 TV series, so Scarecrow’s terror inducing hallucinations were just a perfect denouement for West’s time as Batman. 

Batman: The Animated Series

When the legendary Batman: The Animated Series hit the air, fans were surprised and delighted that the masterminds behind the series not only presented some of Batman’s greatest foes in their proper comic book incarnations, the same creators also improved on many of the rogues. However, Scarecrow was one of the very few villains who was scaled back a bit from his comic book incarnation. I guess a walking, talking embodiment of terror was a bit too hardcore for kids’ animation, but The Animated Series did present a proper origin for Scarecrow for the first time, in the episode “Nothing to Fear” (1992), which ties directly into the comic book origin established so long ago in World’s Finest.

related article – The 25 Essential Batman: The Animated Series Episodes

The only problem was, the B:TAS Scarecrow was not all that scary. He had his fear gas and proper origin, but this Scarecrow looked more Scooby Doo villain than Dark Knight rogue, but that changed in later episodes when he looked like a twisted version of a Western preacher. His face was a burlap horror and he wore a noose around his neck. This new Scarecrow was the stuff of nightmares and was even more darkly twisted than the Scarecrow of the comics. The noose wearing Scarecrow’s most infamous hour came in the episode entitled “Over the Edge” (1998) where a fighting mad James Gordon is out to murder Batman after the death of Batgirl. It’s a frenetic episode and daring even by today’s TV standards. Needless to say, the whole thing was a fear gas induced nightmare, but imagine a little kid tuning in to view this episode and seeing Batgirl murdered and Gordon out to kill Batman. This episode fully embodies the potential of Scarecrow.

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Just to put a bow on the history of Scarecrow in animation, the character also appeared in The Brave and the Bold. In the Master of Fear’s only appearance in an episode entitled “Trials of the Demon” (2009), Crane teams up with the villainess the Scream Queen to take on Batman and Flash in a very Halloween-y battle.

Scare Cinema

The early history of Scarecrow in film is fraught with cancelled projects and almost appearances.  As far as a live action Scarecrow goes, the 1966 Batman TV series went sans Jonathan Crane (however, a Scarecrow did appear in the great Batman ‘66 comic book series published a few years back by DC, where his name was Jitters Holler because awesome) so fans would have to wait until the 21st century to witness a real life Crane.

That doesn’t mean DC never tried to bring Scarecrow to life. Scarecrow was apparently going to appear in the aborted fifth installment of the Batman films that began with 1989’s Batman, and the role was connected to such Hollywood luminaries as Nicolas Cage, Steve Buscemi, Jeff Goldblum, and even Howard Stern. While my brain just won’t accept Cage as Scarecrow, how awesome would Buscemi be as Jonathan Crane? All this was not to be of course as Batman and Robin (1997) was…ummm…a thing that actually happened. Seriously, if I was ever dosed with Crane’s fear gas, I would just probably relive the first time I saw Batman and Robin.

Thank you Mister Nolan!

Of course, Jonathan Crane would finally arrive on the silver screen in Batman Begins (2006). Played by Cillian Murphy, the first film Scarecrow was a subtle and eerie character and the first costumed baddie Christian Bale’s Batman ever faced. As the head of Arkham, this Crane would do the mob’s bidding and use the Arkham inmates as lab rats with his fear gas. Of course, Crane was a pawn of Ra’s Al Ghul, but Murphy’s Scarecrow stole every scene he was in. So much so that director Christopher Nolan used Scarecrow in minor but memorable roles in both sequels to Batman Begins

Virtual Horror

A very disturbing Scarecrow also appears in the Arkham series of video games. This Scarecrow is good, old fashioned nightmare fuel as he sports a gauntlet edges with a series of drug filled hypodermics on Crane’s spindly fingers. Yikes.

Scarecrow recently appeared in Injustice 2 as a member of Gorilla Grodd’s Secret Society. Not only is he voiced by horror legend Robert Englund, but he has multiple pre-fight interactions with every single character in the game. That means Englund’s Scarecrow talking smack against the likes of Bane, Black Adam, and Darkseid. He also has an inspired gimmick to his appearance where he’s depicted as just a man in a lab coat and burlap sack, no different than Cillian Murphy’s live-action depiction, but his ghoulish look during the actual fights is merely how his opponents perceive him through the fear gas. His ending, which features him conquering Brainiac and stealing his space ship, along with the billions of stolen civilizations within, is genuinely unnerving.

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And all this brings us back to Gotham. In the season one episodes “The Fearsome Dr. Crane” and “The Scarecrow,” Gerald Crane and his son Jonathan (played by Charlie Tahan) are introduced. You see, the completely insane Gerald develops the iconic fear toxin and injects it into young Jonathan. The toxin forces the younger Crane to experience his greatest terror: Scarecrows. A bit on the nose, yes, but effective nonetheless. And that brings us to season four, where TV’s Jonathan Crane will don the straw filled suit and burlap mask of the Scarecrow for the first time. And if history has shown us anything since 1941, it’s that where any version of DC’s Scarecrow goes, be it comics, cartoons, film, or video games, unforgettable horror follows.