In honor of this year’s Batman Day, I thought I’d repurpose an article from my NoiseSharkMedia days, which you can read the original version here. Suffice it to say, my opinions on some things have changes, but my love for Batman remains true.
With that mini-intro out of the way, we begin our journey with Batman’s original medium, comic books. Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939 (but let’s be honest, it was mostly Bill Finger) and making his first appearance in Detective Comics #27, Batman is arguably DC Comics most popular character (Batman vs. Superman argument commence!) As such, he has a very long history and a cast of supporting characters that have become as ingrained in pop culture as The Dark Knight himself. And with every new generation of comic book readers, there’s always an attempt to reinvent Batman for the new age despite the fact that there are some things you just can’t change.
It’s said that every comic book writer has a Batman story to tell and with that in mind, let’s take a look at the versatile nature of the Caped Crusader.
The Golden Age (1930s-1940s)
The Golden Age version of Batman is, at times, radically different from the one we recognize today yet completely similar. Inspired by pulp heroes such as Zorro and Doc Savage, Batman was a powerless hero who donned cape and cowl to scare the ever loving minds out of the criminal element of Gotham City. Without the super-human abilities of his colleague in Metropolis, Batman was shown to be a brilliant mind, Sherlock Holmes being yet another inspiration for the character, with a utility belt of gadgets and a Bat-cave of wonders that allowed him to solve crimes and cruise around Gotham. The pulp influence is especially present in Batman’s attitude towards crime-fighting since he started as a remorseless vigilante whose brand of justice included killing and maiming criminals. Creators since have made various attempts to distinguish the line Batman precariously walks between hero and villain, usually relying on his strict “no killing” policy as his own personal Rubicon. The 30s and 40s, however, were a different time when our heroes had no qualms about letting a guy fall to his death if he didn’t play ball.
Batman’s darker approach to crime-fighting may have had something to do with his even darker origin story, which wasn’t even introduced until Detective Comics #33 wherein we learn of young Bruce Wayne, the victim of a terrible crime as he watches his mother and father gunned down by a petty thief. In comparison to Superman’s story (also technically an orphan), Bruce’s origin is especially brutal, but given the rise of organized crime in the 1930s, making the Waynes victims of such a terrible crime gives us a reason to sympathize and encourage his decision to become Batman. It further articulated the point that not even the rich could escape the reach of criminals. In order to lighten things up a bit and give the kids a character they could vicariously live through and provide Batman with a Watson to his Holmes, Bill Finger created Dick Grayson, a.k.a. Robin, the Boy Wonder, as Batman’s kid sidekick.
The Silver Age (1950s-1960s)
Post World War II was an interesting era that saw the changing dynamics of the household set against the tumultuous political divisions building around the Vietnam War and the burgeoning counter culture movement. This was also the age that gave us the atom bomb, creating a new world of possibilities that were both awe-inspiring and devastatingly horrific. To capitalize on the science-fiction genre, Batman interacted with more aliens and used technology never before seen. This is the age in comics that gave us the more whack-a-doodle storylines, which geeks still have a soft spot for since campiness never really goes away. Sci-fi ultimately proved that even a character like Batman could be adapted to fit the prevailing culture…sort of.
That’s not to say Batman was without his share of controversy at the time. Thanks to that feel-good piece Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham, Batman and Robin were basically called out as homosexuals since they didn’t interact with girls enough for Mr. Wertham’s liking. Like Wonder Woman’s lesbian fetishisms and the schadenfreude caused by violence within comics, Batman and Robin were warping the fragile little minds of the youths. In response, DC Comics introduced Batwoman (Kathy Kane) and Bat-girl (Bette Kane) to counteract the accusations. Later on, Batwoman would go on to become one of the most prominent lesbian characters in comics, so go figure!
The Bronze Age (1970’s to 1980’s)
This is where the eras start to get a little murky, but I’ll stick with it as it kinda helps with the organization. Dennis “Denny” O’Neil did for Batman in the 70s what Frank Miller did for Batman in the late 80s, which is make him relevant and badass. O’Neil especially wanted to put some distance between the comic book character and the campy tv show. He envisioned bringing Batman back to the dark roots that had made him so popular to begin with and he did so along with artist Neal Adams. They sought to make Batman the brooding detective, a man tortured by the death of his parents whose only solace was in dedicating his life to fighting crime so that no one else should suffer the same fate. During his run, O’Neil made the call to give Batman an aversion to guns that’s been a part of Batman’s psyche ever since. O’Neil also returned the Joker to his more primal and psychotic state, making him a less predictable foil and greater challenge for the Dark Knight to combat. If you want more proof of O’Neil’s contributions to the Batman mythos, then look no further than Ra’s al-Ghul and his daughter, Talia, both created by O’Neil with assists from Neal Adams on Ra’s and Bob Brown on Talia. The introductory storyline involves international puzzles, forbidden romance, the Lazarus Pit, and Batman and Ra’s sword fighting in the desert! Of course, O’Neil is also the guy who introduced and subsequently killed Robin II, Jason Todd, so it’s not all rainbows and gumdrops.
Despite attempts to revitalize the character, it wasn’t until Frank Miller’s two groundbreaking works, Batman: Year One (1987) and The Dark Knight Returns (1986), that interest in the character skyrocketed. DKR told the story of an older Bruce Wayne, a man forced into retirement by old age yet drawn back into fighting crime as the moral fabric of Gotham declines further and further. This is where the truly obsessed Batman emerges, a man forever driven by his mission no matter what the cost. In contrast, what’s amazing about Year One is that, though it did redefine the Batman origin story (think Martha Wayne’s pearls), it’s not really as much about Batman as it is about the rise of Jim Gordon. Written in the noir style that Miller loves so much, Year One juxtaposes Batman’s attempt to fight crime and corruption outside the law with Gordon as he tries to make change from the inside by refusing to give in to the rampant corruption infecting the GCPD. But Gordon isn’t without his own foibles as the obsession to change Gotham ultimately leads him down a rocky path that makes him question his own moral compass.
The unfortunate aftermath of Miller’s relationship with comic books and the industry as a whole lead him to create two very cynical and almost hateful depictions of not only Batman, but superheroes in general with The Dark Knight Strikes Again (2002) and All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder (2005). Though All-Star is beautifully drawn by Jim Lee and Scott Williams, that’s about all you can say for the book, except that it originates the very popular line, “I’m the Goddam Batman!”
Then we have Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1989). Though the story is ostensibly about Joker’s attempt to drive Jim Gordon insane, the overall narrative is about the fall of decent men. Though it’s Gordon that The Joker torments, his idea that even the most pure of heart and purpose can be corrupted because of “one bad day” equally applies to Batman. The very crime that created Batman could be argued as proof of Joker’s point, which Joker makes reference to at the story’s climax. It’s a fascinating psychological piece as it poses the question, “Is Batman as crazy as his foes?”
The Modern Era (1990’s to 2000’s)
Aren’t labels fun? Anyway, the 90s, though defined by outrageous artwork and a sudden freedom to do whatever the fuck-all you wanted story-wise, saw some notable turns for Batman in the form of Knightfall and The Long Halloween. A brilliant idea that ended on a kind of eh? note, Knightfall (1993) was the book that introduced us to Bane, the South American venom addict who’s most famous for breaking the Bat’s back. With an entire team of writers including Denny O’Neil and Chuck Dixon, Knightfall was as much a character piece for Bruce Wayne as a story asking questions such as, “What makes Batman Batman?” and “Does being Batman mean to be forever alone?” Paralyzed by Bane, Bruce must rebuild his broken body, submitting himself to rigorous physical therapy in order to overcome the psychological damage of being broken and exhausted in his mission as Batman. Whilst recovering, he asks Jean-Paul Valley, a.k.a. Azrael, to take over as Batman, but the overly zealous and increasingly paranoid young man takes his duties to the extreme, tarnishing Batman’s relationship with Gotham and the GCPD. Once recovered through a supernatural deus ex machina, Bruce returns to his duties as Batman and begins to rebuild the relationships sorely neglected by his drive and obsession: his family.
The Long Halloween (1996-97) was written by Jeff Loeb as a follow-up to Miller’s Year One. Utilizing that same noir style, Loeb crafted a thrilling mystery surrounding a villain nicknamed “The Holiday Killer” who, you guessed it, only kills on holidays. The deaths, however, all appear to be specific attacks on the Falcone crime family, with all signs pointing to Bruce Wayne as the killer. The book brilliantly built upon Miller’s foundation, bringing Batman’s rogues gallery in for quick introductions while setting up the fall of Harvey Dent and the rise of Two-Face. The resolution is a disturbing look at the lengths people will go to for what they believe, so it’s no surprise that Christopher Nolan drew heavily from this story when crafting The Dark Knight.
The New Millenia at DC Comics brought about some of the most engaging and somewhat controversial works published prior to the 2011 reboot. One of my all-time favorites was Hush (2003), written by Jeff Loeb with the gorgeous art of Jim Lee. Like all great Batman stories, there’s a mystery to be solved, and this one revolves around Gotham’s latest villain, Hush. The book also explores the themes of family and trust as Bruce willfully reveals his secret identity to Selina Kyle (Catwoman) and comes to terms with the possible return of Jason Todd from the dead. The resolution is brilliant and I dare not spoil it for you. A follow-up that deserves some mention is Under The Hood by Judd Winnick that takes the supposed return of Jason Todd and makes it a reality – because reality got punched in the FACE!!! (For reals, go check out Infinite Crisis) The death of Jason has always been one of Batman’s greatest failures and a huge source of guilt, which Jason exploits through most of the book as he takes revenge upon the Joker for killing him and Batman for not saving him. One could argue that it’s just Jason continuing to be a whiny shit even after his resurrection, but it’s still an interesting concept.
Closing out the pre-52 era is the magnum opus that is the work of Grant Morrison. Starting with the introduction of everybody’s favorite homicidal ten-year-old, Damian Wayne, Morrison embarked on an epic exploration of the Batman mythos culminating in his “death” in Final Crisis (2005-06). A self-proclaimed scholar of myth, legend, and probably made of magic, Morrison took Batman to new levels of ridiculous awesomeness that invited you to journey down the rabbit hole. Whether or not you agree with his treatment of the character, Morrison strongly tied the origins of Bruce Wayne, Gotham, and Batman into a Gordion Knot of mythological and symbolic history. The foundations of Gotham and the foundations of Batman are one and the same, permeating the very buildings that pierce the skyline. Morrison also established through his run on Batman and Robin that Batman and Gotham share yet another connection, that of legacy. Though Gotham is a city that appears to stand alone, it is built upon the legacies of the families who gave birth to her in concept and design. And though we often depict Batman as a solitary hero, he is the progenitor of a powerful legacy of heroes, which results in his desire to “share the wealth” as it were in Batman, Inc.
The New 52 – Present
Though this was prior to the 2011 “reboot,” when Scott Snyder took over writing duties on the main Batman title post-Morrison, he carried over the concept of Gotham as its own living, breathing entity, a reflective surface prepared to bring out the ugly darkness from within, no matter the hero who calls him or herself a protector of the city. As a lover of comics I recommend that you pick up The Black Mirror as fast as you can. It is, by far, one of the best Batman stories written prior to The Court of Owls storyline. Through the eyes of Dick Grayson as the new Batman in Bruce’s absence, Snyder turned the tables on Gotham’s most reluctantly heroic son, showing Dick that, though he’s always tried to run away from the legacy of his adopted family, his roots are as much a part of the city as Bruce’s. For Dick, Gotham may bring out the worst aspects of the human soul, but that only makes him strive to fight the good fight more.
Carried over, post-reboot, The Court of Owls arc takes Batman and Gotham’s intertwining legacies and turns it into an all out brawl for the soul of the city. Batman once again, Bruce is pushed to his absolute breaking point by the Court of Owls, a secret society ensconced in Gotham society’s upper echelons. Working behind the scenes, the Court manipulates and murders in order to retain power, using the immortal assassins, the Talons, to do their bidding. As he investigates them further, Bruce finds that one of his most trusted companions may be connected to the Court and their deadly machinations. The crux of the story continues to be that of family and legacy. Pulling in the entire Bat Family, Snyder cracks the foundations in order to make them stronger than ever before. Of course, this was before we knew what he and artist Greg Capullo had in store for the Batman and the Bat-Family in Death of the Family, Zero Year, Endgame, and the current arc. The final issue of Court of Owls, however, features a beautiful scene between Bruce and Dick that gives the original dynamic duo a quiet moment of repose and reflection before Gotham inevitably needs them again. As the arc ends, we the readers understand that Snyder is himself a part of a long legacy of Batman creators, molding his own vision of the Dark Knight and the world he inhabits. And if you need a reminder of just how much Batman and Gotham are tied together go read Batman #44 by Snyder, co-writer Brian Azzarello, and artist Jock and prepare to be amazed.