I’m not sure if you’ve heard this or not, but there is a sequel to Batman Begins coming out soon. Kidding aside, The Dark Knight seems poised to wow fans and shatter box office records as one of the most popular heroes of all time. But it wasn’t always like this for the Bat, no, he has a long and storied history. While the history of Batman has fewer fireballs than Christopher Nolan’s newest, the tale of the Batman is no less interesting.
Who would have thought that one of the most recognizable and marketable heroes of all times would have such humble origins? Back in 1938, the heads of National Publications (which later becomes DC Comics) simply asked for more super-heroes and Bob Kane submitted something entitled “The Bat-Man” which was quickly molded into the first incarnation of the character we know and love. That transition would not have been made without the creative input of the often ignored Bill Finger, who helped refine the character into his final design, and also was instrumental in crafting some of Batman’s villains, including the Riddler. Kane too, would sometimes share in the problems around a lack of recognition when he signed away the rights to the character. At various times, Kane’s name was and was not credited as the creator of the character, though today he is widely recognized as so.
The character Kane created first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in May, 1939 in a story entitled The Case of the Chemical Syndicate. Borrowing a good bit of inspiration from the concurrent noir detective films popular at the time, the Bat-Man didn’t hesitate to kill or wound criminals or utilize firearms. The origins of Bruce Wayne and the fate of his parents were revealed later that year in November and by 1940, Robin had joined the comic against Kane’s wishes as a boy sidekick to whom Batman could converse with while on the case.
Batman continued to enjoy strong sales through the 1950s and changed with the times, bringing new characters and gadgets into the fold and appearing in stories that reflected the interests of the time, including science fiction. The caped crusader also enlisted in The Justice League in this period (early 1960) and moved away from his pulpy violent roots. Partly due to the gloom following the second World War and in large part due to the increased scrutiny on the implications of imitative behavior from children reading comics, and then the introduction of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, Batman become a progressively sillier character, moving further and further from his dark roots. By 1964, sales of the character had declined so severely that he faced a fate worse than death – cancellation.
While there were some changes between 1964 and 1966, including the death of butler Alfred Pennyworth, the most significant changes occurred after the Adam West TV series Batman premiered and garnered success. The campy nature of show quickly rubbed off onto the comic and this new, laughable Batman managed to reach a circulation of nearly 900,000. These lighter times brought the return of Alfred and such memorable moments such as dancing Batman and the infamous Shark Repellent.
While some may recall fondly on these days, many fans and industry folks cannot bear to think back to what is, in the opinion of so many, the darkest period of Batman’s. Dark as in shameful, of course. Modern movie-goers often mock the Adam West Batman as untrue to the character, and while that is undoubtedly true, it also must be recognized that the comic fell into the same pratfalls and the two mirrored each other nicely. Thankfully, the series was canceled in 1968 and once again the sales of the comic fell, endangering the life of the character once more.
The Dark Knight Returns
In 1969, under the pen of writer Dennis O’Neil and the pencil of the brilliant artist Neil Adams, Batman returned to his gritty origins as a crime fighter who haunts the night, relentlessly pursuing criminals. A new creative team and a darker look wasn’t quite enough to return Batman to his former glory, and the dual personality crime fighter continued to wage a losing battle against sales numbers.
Sales struggled through the next two decades, despite the early 1980s producing many classic Bat-tales, including ones that would eventually be worked into the original Tim Burton directed Batman and Batman The Animated Series. By the middle of the 1980s, sales of all things Batman were dismal and again the character seemed to be on the verge of disappearing into the void of canceled books.
In 1986, the master of grit, Frank Miller, reinvented the Batman in a dystopian future where a 50 year old Bruce Wayne emerges from retirement as the caped crusader and wages a gritty war against a gang of criminals known as the Mutants. In this dark and immensely popular tale, Batman is forced to face off against Two-Face, the Joker, and even his one time friend Superman. This is a tale not to be missed and was both critically and popularly acclaimed at the time, and today.
The newly re-intensified and darker trend in Batman comics continued with 1987’s Year One storyline that redefines some of the Bat history and shows us a very young and green Bruce Wayne first don his crime fighting garb. Parts of Batman Begins were inspired by events within this arc, which was also written by Frank Miller. Famed British writer Alan Moore also lent his darker talents to a Batman tale with 1988’s stand-alone comic Batman: The Killing Joke in which the Joker torments and tortures Commissioner Gordon, cripples his daughter Barbara Gordon, and reveals much of the origin of the the comedically themed rogue. As if this weren’t dark enough, 1988’s Batman: A Death in the Family arc resulted in fans voting, by a slim margin, to let the Joker kill Jason Todd, the current (but not original) Robin.
Batman books would settle into this darker tone, with mild ebbs and flows into both darker and lighter territory, including stories involving his back being broken by the villain Bane and the near destruction of Gotham City by an Earthquake.
Batman Today and Tomorrow
Starting in the mid 1990s, DC again shook up the entire universe, notably with the Zero Hour storylines that again toyed with the origins of Batman and made him into more of an urban legend than a recognized hero. Batman has remained one of the most popular comic characters over the past two decades and is considered among the Big Three of DC, the others being Wonder Woman and Superman. Notably Batman has grown closer to and further apart from his superhero comrades and has become more obsessive in his war on crime. Bruce Wayne got so close as to be entrusted with Kryptonite by Superman and become romantically involved with Wonder Woman, though later events would have him distanced from the entire Justice League again. Currently, Batman is again on friendlier terms with the other heroes and regularly appears in Trinity, which focuses on the Big Three. In his regular ongoing comics, an air of doom hangs over the Bat once again, as the storyline entitled “R.I.P.” threatens to possibly kill a member of the Bat family, rewrite history, destroy Batman and get rid of Bruce Wayne. It’s also worth noting that Frank Miller has again returned to writing Batman with the somewhat satirical All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder.
Of course, it goes without saying that Batman also currently enjoys a hit movie in Batman Begins and will almost assuredly cement his cinematic standings in The Dark Knight. Despite the foreboding nature of R.I.P., it would be a safe bet to assume that Bruce Wayne will remain as Batman both in the comics and on film and continue to dominate the printed page while soaring to box office success on the big screen. Fans are already clamoring for a third Bale-Nolan venture and the excitement surrounding the character is perhaps at the highest of any point over the past 69 years.
What Makes a Bat-Man?
Up until now, we’ve mostly focused on the history of the character without going into the basics of him. Though with his popularity and level of notoriety, is it even necessary to go over what makes the character tick? … Yes.
Bruce Wayne is the heir of a multi-million dollar fortune, a successful business, and one of the most intelligent people in comics when it comes to practical inventions and tactical planning. This all came at a high cost, of course, as a young Bruce Wayne watched his parents be murdered during a robbery. Young Master Wayne devoted his mind and body to becoming the most efficient crime fighter he could and dedicating himself to the pursuit of vigilante justice.
As Batman, Wayne possess advanced technological gadgetry that vary from issue to issue and time period to time period, but he is often equipped with advanced hearing and optical equipment in his cowl, a moderately armored combat suit, assisted climbing gear, and a cape that allows him to effortlessly glide between buildings. In his infamous utility built are a plethora of useful gadgets including sharp batarangs, smoke pellets, and assorted other objects. Of course, no discussion of Batman is complete without mention of his rides – the various Batmobiles, batwings, and batboats. Some are more grounded in reality than others, of course, and the Batman has even used a bat-jet pack.
As a detective, in addition to his mind, Batman has at his disposal the batcave which features a super computer and tons of scientific equipment hiding in the shadows of his trophies. Fans of the comic will most readily recall the giant coin and the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The BatSuit is perhaps among the top three easily recognizable costumes and symbols of all time in the world of entertainment media and, depending on the author or director, has been bullet proof, armored, packed with technology, defensive electrical shocks, or nipples. No suit is complete without the things that have remained constant of the year – a frightening cowl, a bat emblem on the chest, pointed ears, a winglike cape, boots, and instantly recognizable gloves.
Batman has been regarded by several writers to be the ultimate hero, the most dangerous man on Earth. His singular determination and obsessive planning and forethought allow him to use his cunning to ensnare and defeat virtually any opponent from the Joker to Superman. One thing that stands out among other characters is the fact that Batman is merely a man. There is no extra gene, no god parents, no mysterious cosmic forces or alien ancestry. He is the definition of a driven man, who crafted and honed the perfect body, the sharpest mind. Truly, Batman represents what could be considered the pinnacle of human development with Olympic athletic abilities, genius level intellect, and the willpower to maintain not only his determination but his moral values, at all times.
But there is another side to the caped crusader, his alter ego. While some may debate which is the real man, Bruce Wayne or Batman, and which is the masked persona, as Wayne, life is good. Sitting atop a large fortune, Wayne cultivates a public image of the spoiled rich kid, often seen with several women on his arm and fast cars and a poor attitude. While this is about as far from Batman as possible, that is the very point of it. An apparently self-centered playboy could never be the masked vigilante. Hell, it’s a better disguise than a pair of glasses – I’m looking at you, Clark. The playboy rarely gets to play, only coming out enough to keep up appearances; most of the time Wayne is Batman, secluded in his cave, singularly thinking about eliminating the plague of crime that infects Gotham City.
The Rest of the Cast
I could not in good faith publish this article without at least mentioning in passing some of the supporting cast of Batman. Widely hailed as having a tremendous and easily recognizable gallery of Rogues, Batman has matched wits against The Penguin, The Joker, Scarecrow, Killer Croc, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Bane, Two-Face, and countless others.
Supporting Batman have been several Robins, Alfred, Batgirl, Batwoman, and Commissioner Gordon again, among many other notables.
Holy Apologies, Batman!
I feel as though I most apologize on two fronts. 1. For writing so much. 2. For not writing nearly enough. There is so much here that I wanted to go over (Azrael, more Rogue’s Gallery, the city of Gotham) and more focus on the modern comics. Really, Batman is a tremendous character and rather than reading about his exploits, I urge you to read his exploits. Invest in the character.
With nearly 70 years of material to fall back on, reading Batman can be intimidating. With that in mind, I’ve listed below my personal favorite collections for your consideration. Regarding art, the celebrated run of artist Jim Lee drawing Batman was beautiful and iconic and you’ll find much of that collected in Hush mentioned below.
Batman: Year One
Batman: The Long Halloween
Batman: Dark Victory
Batman: Hush Volume 1 and 2
Batman: The Killing Joke
Batman: A Death in the Family
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
For more of our coverage of The Dark Knight, check out our Official Dark Knight Homepage.