Much mention has been made in this column about the fact that Superman and Batman are among the few comic-book characters (along with Wonder Woman) to see continuous publication since their inception. That is, since their first appearance, not a month has gone by in 65 years in which there wasn’t a Superman or Batman comic book published. That’s an impressive statistic in itself, but the better question is, why? What is it about these characters that allowed them to stay popular and in the public eye while the rest of their cape-and-tights-wearing brethren went the way of the dodo? Here’s my theory:
Batman’s editors and creators were smart enough to use the character as a mirror for American society, allowing the character to change to reflect the world around him, but without deviating so much from the core archetype that the basic appeal is lost. It’s a tricky balancing act to pull off, and sure, there were a few missteps along the way, but for the most part, it worked and continues to work. Don’t buy it? Let’s track Batman’s character evolution over the last six decades and see what we find.
When the character first appeared in 1939, the Great Depression was still a vivid memory for many, and the notion of one man looking out for the little guy, fighting to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves, was a very welcome one. In addition, popular pulp and radio characters like the Shadow had made the mysterious, vigilante hero-type already a popular one. In this rough-and-tumble era, the original conception of the Batman as a grim avenger, using intimidation and swift violence to strike fear in the hearts of the guilty, struck a chord with readers. In these stories, Batman would do whatever it takes to get the job done, including the occasional use of firearms, or even strangling someone from the Batplane if necessary.
Even after the introduction of Robin to the strip in 1940, Batman was more than willing to bend the rules to achieve his goals, as seen in the following scene, in which he coerces a confession from a gangster by threatening to burn the rope that holds him hundreds of feet above the ground.
And even when the thug is murdered before his eyes by his vicious boss, Batman doesn’t seem all too concerned, instead making sure Robin captures the moment for posterity.
As the 1940s progressed, much of Batman’s vigilante edge was beginning to be worn away, replaced with a kind of semi-official police status. With America’s entry into World War II, the public was thirsting for clear-cut heroes and villains, and the shadowy, dangerous edge that the vigilante-style Batman presented was no longer in fashion. While Batman didn’t get involved much with the war in his actual adventures, on the covers of his magazines he was unabashedly patriotic, often exhorting readers to buy war bonds and stamps.
Between saluting the flag on the covers of his books and the kid in a yellow cape and green pixie boots running alongside him, it was harder and harder for Batman to remain spooky and mysterious, so he gradually gave it up. Soon we would see the Batman calmly interviewing witnesses in broad daylight like any other police officer, often working with in conjunction with city officials. For example, in this adventure, Batman investigates a series of murders at a movie studio, with full cooperation from studio officials. By the end of the case, not only is the killer caught, but Batman and Robin are being offered movie careers:
It was also in the ’40s that Batman’s relationship with Commissioner Gordon became more public, as in this scene from the Riddler’s first appearance in 1948, when Batman leads a caravan of policemen to assemble Riddler’s latest giant clue.
The general public was also on board with Batman by the mid-40s, with wealthy Gotham society types not only welcoming Batman into their homes, but also willing to lie to the press for them and trust them with precious gems. Clearly, Batman’s “creature of the night” days were rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
The post-war 1950s brought a new emphasis on home, hearth and family to the country as scores of servicemen, now home from military service, began buying homes, starting careers and raising families. Batman was certainly not immune to the effects of the “Baby Boom;” as we’ve discussed in previous columns, Batman found himself to be quite the family man all of a sudden in the late 50s, with the introduction of Ace the Bat-Hound, Bat-Mite, Batwoman and Bat-Girl. While I believe the effects of Dr. Wertham’s accusations of homosexuality and the advent of the Comics Code Authority to be the primary motivators for this sudden shift in the BATMAN cast of characters, the increased emphasis on family in American popular culture in the 1950s, particularly with the advent of television and the family comedy (such as THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET, FATHER KNOWS BEST and LEAVE IT TO BEAVER) no doubt had a subconscious influence on Batman’s creators, leading them to make their hero more paternal, in the model of TV’s then-most popular characters. Longtime Batman editor Denny O’Neil has referred to the Batman of this era as a kind of “benign scoutmaster”; the description is an apt one. The 1950s Batman was a smiling, cheerful fellow often spotted walking around in broad daylight. For example, here Batman is called in by an aviation company to help test out new aircraft technology. The Dark Knight is nothing if not helpful.
As you might recall from last week, it was in the 1950s that Batman taught criminology at Gotham University. Not to be outdone, even Robin had an air of respectability about him in the ’50s, as evidenced here in his guest lecturer’s position at the Gotham Police College.
With the advent of the Space Race in the 1960s, science-fiction was in, and Batman was no exception. Soon Batman was fighting aliens with some regularity, and occasionally even traveling into space.
Even the stories based in Gotham were taking on a more fantasy-styled feel, such as the infamous 1963 tale “Robin Dies at Dawn!” from BATMAN #156, in which Batman, while volunteering with psychological isolation experiments for the space program (Batman in the ’50s and ’60s was much more civic-minded, if you hadn’t noticed…), hallucinates about being teleported to a strange alien world and being locked in combat with alien creatures.
It’s also no surprise that Clayface, one of Batman’s few super-powered opponents and certainly his most outlandish one, made his debut during the early 1960s. Things changed for Batman in 1964, when new incoming editor Julius Schwartz retooled the books in the face of foundering sales. Gone were the Bat-Family and much of the science-fiction emphasis; more detective-flavored stories were favored, as well as a return of some of Batman’s classic villains, like the Riddler, and the Scarecrow. The look of the character changed as well; aside from the superficial change of a yellow oval being added behind the bat-emblem on Batman’s uniform, the familiar “house style” of the Batman books, created by artists Dick Sprang and Sheldon Moldoff, was abandoned, in favor of a new, slicker and less cartoony approach by penciller Carmine Infantino and inker Joe Giella.
As it happens, this “New Look” Batman, as it came to be called, wound up having even more impact than the editors expected, as it in turn inspired the 1966 ABC television series, which would catapult the character to new heights of popularity. The popularity came at a price, though, as it would etch the perception of the character as a campy, comedic figure in the public eye for decades to come, and undo the efforts made by Schwartz in 1964 to make the character more serious.
As Batman moved into the 1970s, Schwartz renewed his efforts to retool the character, this time going back to the basics: in the hands of writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams (fresh from a successful stint on the Batman teamup book THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD), Batman was returned to his roots as a dark avenger of the night. Adams’ conception of Batman, with the long, pointed ears on the cowl, and a billowing, expressive cape, soon became the company standard for the character.
Robin was relegated to the background (having been sent off to Hudson University), and the storylines took a much more moody and mysterious feel. At first, O’Neil experimented with some different styles, such as in “The Secret of the Waiting Graves!”) DETECTIVE COMICS # 395, January 1970) in which Batman investigated the mystery of a wealthy Mexican couple dependent on a rare breed of flower to maintain their eternal youth.
Soon enough, O’Neil and Adams were turning their attention to slightly more traditional opponents for Batman, returning characters like Two-Face and the Joker to their more murderous origins. In addition, O’Neil and Adams made a major contribution to the Batman mythos with their creation of Ra’s al Ghul, the immortal eco-fanatic with ambitions of global domination.
This return to darkness for Batman would remain in place throughout the 1970s and ’80s, but found itself diminishing as the years went by, and Batman’s again-increasing popularity mandated his appearance in all number of series and team books, somewhat damping his appeal as a lone figure of mystery. After all, it’s hard to reasonably sell Batman as a gritty urban vigilante when in the same month he’s conversing with dead people in BRAVE AND THE BOLD and doing space-suited repair work on the JLA satellite in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. The turning point for Batman in the 1980s was clearly Frank Miller’s BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, which recast Batman as a violent, Dirty-Harry-style vigilante, who was far less concerned with legal niceties and the rights of his opponents.
While we’ll go into DARK KNIGHT RETURNS in far more detail on weeks to come, for now we’ll note that the book is clearly a product of the 1980s, a time when urban crime (and more important, media perception of urban crime) was at an all-time high. The world, it seemed, was ready to accept a Batman that played a little rougher, and the regular Batman comics followed suit, with a retelling of Batman’s origin, again by Frank Miller, this time with artist David Mazzuchelli on BATMAN: YEAR ONE.
While YEAR ONE didn’t increase, or even maintain the ferocity of DARK KNIGHT, it did provide a tone of darkness and corruption for Gotham City that would remain an aspect of Batman comics for years to come. Even the fans in the ’80s were feeling a bit bloodthirsty, as evidenced in the 1988 murder-by-telephone of the second Robin Jason Todd, as discussed previously.
In reaction to the “grim & gritty” movement in comics in the 1990s, popularized by both the advent of Image Comics, and such shoot-first-ask-questions-later comic-book heroes like DC’s Lobo and Marvel’s Punisher, all of whom were selling quite a few comics at the time, DC editor Denny O’Neil decided to give the readers exactly what they wanted, and in so doing show them why they didn’t really want it. In a two-year-long storyline entitled KNIGHTFALL stretching though all the various BATMAN series, Batman is crippled at the hands of Bane, a new Bat-villain created by Chuck Dixon and Doug Moench and Graham Nolan. Bane, a chemically enhanced muscleman, first breaks open Arkham Asylum, forcing Batman to run himself ragged recapturing all its inmates, then breaks Batman himself, defeating the exhausted hero in hand-to-hand combat, and finally shattering his spine, leaving Bruce Wayne paralyzed and wheelchair-bound.
The defeated and uncertain Bruce Wayne allows new Gotham vigilante Azrael to take over as Batman after Azrael manages to defeat Bane, and the new Batman becomes more and more vicious as time goes by, gradually replacing the Bat-uniform with a heavy armored battle suit, and beginning to dish out lethal force against the criminal element, which puts him at odds with traditional Batman allies like Robin and Commissioner Gordon. Eventually, a recovered and healed Bruce Wayne was forced to return to Gotham and fight it out with Azrael in order to reclaim and restore the Batman identity.
The years following have seen a return of sorts to the “Bat-Family” of old, as Batman has once more begun to surround himself with a team of agents, such as Nightwing, Robin, Batgirl, Oracle, Azrael, the Huntress, the Spoiler and even Catwoman. Everything old is new again, I suppose. We just need to get him a dog with a mask and we’ve come full circle…