Seventy-four years of Batman

Dodano: 29 May 2013

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The author of the article is Łukasz Chmielewski. You can find out more about the author here.

For the first time he appeared in a comic book in May 1939, in the issue 27 of Detective Comics, a series featuring exactly what the name suggests. At the time nobody expected that the hero of the issue would become famous all over the world.

Batman by Jim Lee. © DC Comics 

Seven decades of the bat

The first story starring the Dark Knight was an attempt to take advantage of Superman’s success. But the true source of the idea was Zorro – a wealthy Mexican in disguise who defends the oppressed was replaced with a millionaire who fights crime in Gotham City. The character was created by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane (although Kane is more often credited as the sole creator). The first version of Batman that Kane created was a blonde man wearing a red costume with a cape/bat wings. Bill Finger (hired by the artist) decided that such an image is not a very convincing one for a crime fighter, and he suggested some improvements. Therefore we owe the Dark Knight as we know him now to Finger, a creator mercilessly exploited by the show business. Bruce Wayne, Batman’s “everyday” alter ego is only seemingly a playboy living a happy life. Actually, the son of millionaire doctor has gone through a childhood trauma that marked him for life. Bruce witnessed his parents, Thomas and Martha, being murdered in Crime Alley. Standing at their grave, he vowed to wage a war on criminals. Craving for justice, his main motivator, caused him to leave Gotham City at the age of 12 to obtain necessary training in Europe and Asia. After ten years he returned to his home town as a person of immense knowledge, skilled in every lethal martial art imaginable. To evoke fear in the hearts of thugs as well as disguise his identity, he put on the bat costume. Fabulously wealthy, he devoted a significant portion of his resources to creating a secret base in a cave beneath his mansion – a place from which he sets of for a “hunt” each night.

The cover of "Detective Comics" #27. Bob Kane and Bill Finger. © DC Comics

The Dark Knight’s appearance in The Case of the Chemical Syndicate (the title tells all: Batman, as a seasoned detective obviously solves the case) was welcomed enthusiastically enough that the publisher decided to make Batman a fixture on Detective Comics, and from 1940, give him his own, eponymous series. Crime stories solved by a superintelligent detective dressed in an odd costume slowly started to evolve into darker plots and atmosphere, verging on thriller and horror. Moreover, additional two characters emerged, who determined the new direction for Bruce Wayne’s adventures. The first one was Dick Grayson, a boy from a circus family, whose parents had been murdered, and who was adopted by a millionaire. After a short time he was initiated into Batman’s mission and appointed the heir to the cape. He assisted Bruce in his crusade as Robin. The other character is the Joker, a psychopath who looks like a clown (after an involuntary encounter with a significant amount of chemicals), has a fairly disturbed sense of humour and believes that only himself and Batman are real and everybody else are pawns in the game they play. From that moment onward Batman stories started evolving into so-called fantasy comics, where realism is mixed with supernatural items and characters. Increasingly large gallery of monstrous villains also contributed to this tendency: the Joker was joined by Two-Face, the Penguin, Poison Ivy, Mad Hatter, Scarecrow, the Riddler and others. Murderous inclinations and mental aberrations combined with fairytale or grotesque look resulted in a unique and terrifying bunch of creatures, which turned out to be worthy adversaries for the Dark Knight.

What happened next?

Bob Kane stopped writing and drawing stories, but the character had long since started to live a life of its own. Batman fought not only ordinary and extraordinary thugs. During World War 2 his enemies were the Nazis and the Japanese (the Dark Knight was thwarting each diabolical attempts to defeat the American power and he persecuted foreign spies). After the war, the legions of adversaries were joined by the Communists, trying to destroy the American way. As a lion share of comic books of the time, this one also contained propaganda and apart from entertainment it offered overly simplistic indoctrination of the worst kind. It did nothing, however, to prevent psychiatrist Dr Frederick Wertham from accusing the book of promoting homosexuality and paedophilia in his book Seduction of the Innocents (1954). Wertham interpreted the master-apprentice relationship between Wayne and young Grayson unambiguously as a distasteful gay pastime. The psychiatrist’s attack damaged Batman’s image, but it did not cause him to disappear from the comic book market.

With popularity approaching Superman’s, Batman was made into a film. The first one (in which he and Robin battled the Wizard, a megalomaniac with fascist inclinations) was shot in the ’40s and the following adaptation was made for the TV in the late ’60s. It should be remarked that although the series turned out to be extremely successful, it may cause quite a cognitive dissonance in a contemporary bat-fan. The ocean of absurdity, lousy acting (Adam West as Batman is stiff and rather chubby), fights with criminals interjected with various “booms!” and “pows!” as well as Robin shouting “Holy donut!” excitedly every so often (it might suggest that there might have been something to Wertham’s claims after all). All these elements did not work to the disadvantage of the character, quite the opposite in fact: after the series, sales of the book spiked. Besides, comics themselves at the time resembled rather a parody of Bill Finger’s ideas than classic, dark detective stories.

Adam West and Burt Ward on the set of 1966 Batman. Source:

Fortunately at the end of the ’60s Batman was picked up by writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams and…

Nothing has been the same since

O’Neil decided to bring the darkness from within Batman to the surface and return to demons that haunt him. The memories of the past tragedy, the crusade continued despite it being the lost cause and Bruce/Batman identity crisis become priorities once more. Stories became atmospheric again and even depressing at times (e.g. the story about the former concentration camp prisoner killing off his tormentors). The authors have put the protagonist in a realistic setting, resembling the US in the ’60s and ’70s, troubled by increasingly high crime rate and numerous social issues. O’Neil and Adams did not forget that they make comics, but they also made sure that their product stands out among other such books: a particular mixture of thriller and horror has become their signature. O’Neil has come up with the character of R’as al Ghul, the Batman’s nemesis, a couple of hundred year old mystic who tries to annihilate humankind in order to save the planet. Needless to say, his efforts are always thwarted by the Dark Knight. O’Neil and Adams’ version of Batman has open the doors for other talented artists who followed in their footsteps and continued their noble quest.

Batman by Neal Adams © DC Comics


In 1986 DC Comics editors decided that the entire comic book universe (inhabited by Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash and other DC creations) is overcrowded with unnecessary characters and overflowing with useless plots. As a result, new beginnings were written for classic heroes, such as Batman:Year One by the excellent Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli. The story is presented from the point of view of James Gordon, whose transfer to Gotham City coincides with the return of millionaire Bruce Wayne. Gordon is horrified by the corruption in the police force and among city officials, but it quickly turns out that he is not the only one ready to oppose the (dis)order in town: enter the mysterious vigilante, Batman.

Miller wisely used the artistic and commercial success of Year One to create The Dark Kinght Returns. The story shows how after a ten year hiatus Bruce Wayne, now approaching his sixties, takes up his crusade to establish order in Gotham City – and even the whole country – one last time, cracking down on government schemes, old enemies and even one of his former friends. Miller’s imaginative and moving writing prompted DC Comics to entrust Batman’s stories to master writers and artists. Jim Starlin, Grant Morrison, Alan Grant, John Wagner, Archie Goodwin, Chuck Dixon Jan De Matteis, Garth Ennis, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Howard Chaykin, Peter Milligan, Jeph Loeb, Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker are but a few names from the entire pantheon of famous creators who have worked on Batman.

The Celluloid Knight

Batman’s phenomenon resulted naturally in a screen adaptation. A young director named Tim Burton, known for his inclination towards comic book aesthetics, was attached to the project. The film premièred in 1989 and… America went mad and took the whole wide world along for the ride. Even today we see t-shirts with the bat emblem worn by people who would not willingly reach for a comic book. Batman, with the excellent roles of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, broke all possible box office records and caused the so-called “bat-mania”. It also spawned a new series of comic books called Legends of the Dark Knight, which featured stories from Batman’s past, created by true stars of the industry. Batman Returns (1992), also directed by Burton, perhaps did not do as well in the financial department, but it confirmed unflagging popularity of the character and displayed director’s bigger artistic ambitions. This time the plot went further than the basic theme of good vs. evil. There were more characters difficult to classify as simply positive or negative forces: Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer, the Penguin (Danny De Vito), Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). The script was surprisingly coherent and the film as a whole surprised with an original artistic vision. However, numerous references to the classic movie canon were not appreciated by the producers (who surely must have judged them too difficult to understand for the modern audience), and direction of the next film, with a silly title Batman Forever, was entrusted to Joel Schumacher. Keaton was replaced with Val Kilmer. The style of the film was inspired by the TV series from the ’60s, with equally bad writing and cardboard characters. Even the involvement of decent actors (Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey) did nothing to help, as there simply was nothing for them to do. Especially annoying was the film version of district attorney Harvey Dent, Batman’s friend, who following the assassination attempt on his life, became the Dark Knight’s fierce enemy. This tragic, virtually Shakespearean character, in Schumacher’s movie resemble an awful imitation of a clown. Schumacher unfortunately continued his approach in the fourth instalment of the saga, Batman and Robin (1997), which is a bright, colourful and painfully empty shell of a film, stuffed with pathetic jokes to boot. Luckily, it turned out to be a box office flop and Warner Bros. decided that Schumacher would not direct any more Batman films, especially since bat-fans all over the world took to describing the director with some quite unprintable language.

Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton as Joker and Batman. Source:

In 2003 there were still plans to film Miller and Mazzuchelli’s Year One as the next episode of the franchise. Darren Aronofsky, the excellent director of Wrestler and Life of Pi, was attached to the project and according to his vision, the film was supposed to be unusually realistic for a comic book adaptation, and focused on the protagonist’s psyche rather than never-ending action set pieces. However, for reasons never made clear, the project was abandoned and fans still hope and wait for a comic book adaptation of the script written by Aronofsky and Miller. Another unfulfilled plan is the Superman vs Batman, a film about a confrontation of attitudes of both iconic characters and their unlikely cooperation. Warner Bros. has decided to bury this project as well, despite the involvement of director Wolfgang Petersen and a pretty decent script by Adrew Kevin Walker (responsible for the brilliant Se7en).

Eventually, in 2003, Christopher Nolan was named the director of the new version of Batman’s adventures. Thanks to the trilogy which consists of Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) the legend of the Bat was resurrected on the big screen, earning billions and attracting the attention of audiences who normally completely ignore comic books.

Christian Bale and Cillian Murphy on the set of "Batman Begins". Source:

The animated series Batman, which appeared on American TV screens in 1992 deserves a mention as well. Its creators, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, are responsible for a remarkable piece of television, which is only seemingly addressed to children. The ’30s setting, dark atmosphere and often quite serious themes have made the series particularly enjoyable to the fans. It was very respectful of the comic book original, writing was excellent and the creator’s original vision deserves a special mention. Moreover, Harley Quinn, Joker’s lover created especially for the series moved from the screens to comic books setting a precedent unrepeated to this day.

Soap opera

Like any series, adventures of the Dark Knight are full of tragedies and plot twists. Due to the conflict with his mentor, Dick Grayson gave up the role of Robin and was soon after replaced by one Jasod Todd. The second Robin died by the hand of the Joker (and sentenced to death by… the fans in a phone-in poll). Years later the post was filled by Tim Drake who keeps helping Batman to this day. In a complex and multi-layered story Knightfall, Bruce Wayne, weary with his crusade, gets defeated by a new adversary – Bane, both a man from nowhere and a victim of human experimentation. Gotham needs a protector, and this role is assumed by Jean Paul Valley, the heir of the legacy of the mysterious Order of St. Dumas, who fights crime according to “an eye of an eye” principle unacceptable for Bruce Wayne. After a complicated treatment Bruce returns for a confrontation with his successor – they fought for the right to wear the cape. Batman won and Gotham regained its hero.

Not long after, the city falls victim to a deadly virus (as it turns out, released by R’as al Ghul), followed by an earthquake, which prompted the US government to isolate and abandon destroyed Gotham. The power in the city, renamed no man’s land is taken by gangs led by Batman’s adversaries and our hero, supported by his few friends, makes a suicidal attempt to save the ruined city.

Page from "Batman" #497. Dough Moench, Jim Aparo. © DC Comics

Several months after reinstating the previous status quo, Bruce Wayne is accused of killing his beloved and not all of his companions are convinced of his innocence… Later the city becomes an arena of an enormous gang war, the second Robin – Jason Todd – is brought back to life and it turns out that Bruce Wayne is the father of Talia al Ghul’s son. In a relatively short time Batman even managed to die (and, of course, to come back from the dead) twice, thanks to the psychedelic imagination of writer Grant Morrison. But the particulars of some of these stories are so absurd that discourage even die-hard comic book fans.

As we can see, fans of the Dark Knight could never be bored. Currently there are over a dozen series connected to Batman, as well as special issues published in the USA every year.

It is worth mentioning that the Dark Knight is such a universal character that for years DC Comics has been publishing a line called Elseworlds featuring mainly Batman. It was a series in which Batman was presented in alternative realities, e.g. during the French Revolution or in the 22nd century, with the objective to show him as a timeless symbol of justice rather than a mere mortal. Elseworlds’ creators seem to suggests that the Bat has existed always and Bruce Wayne is yet another of his incarnations, not the first one and surely not the last.

The icon

For years his adventures have been created by the most outstanding writers and artists. His popularity does not seem to fade. Why is that? It would be very easy to say that Batman stands the test of time, because Amaricans are attached to their tradition and cultural legacy. Which is, at least partly, true, but the character owes his success to his incredible potential. Who is Bruce Wayne? A man who has sacrificed himself on the altar of ideals. One may venture a statement that Bruce Wayne ceased to exist – his personality is but a mask hiding his true nature – Batman. Everything the millionaire does revolves around the dark vigilante. Wayne’s personal happiness is and usually stays secondary to his lofty ideals. Despite having friends ready to give up their lives for him, the Dark Knight is in fact a very solitary, very lonely person by choice. Batman realises that a choice he has once made determines his life and future, and that his never-ending crusade requires sacrifices. This is the main source of conflicts between Batman and his co-workers, who want personal happiness, while the Dark Knight has voluntarily relinquished it. Although he sometimes still dream about ordinary life, he feels most comfortable hunting criminals. As a brooding outsider and a realist who does not trust his fellow superheroes – he was removed from the Justice League of America when it was discovered that he was secretly preparing plans to eliminate each of its members in case they started to constitute a threat to people. What is even more unusual, his unpredictability and mystery evokes not only fear in the hearts of criminals, but also apprehension of characters with superpowers, such as Superman, because it is impossible to know what Batman thinks at any given moment, and of what he is capable.

Batman and Nightwing by Scott McDaniel. © DC Comics

No wonder then that such a complex character is appealing to both readers and artist working on his adventures. The sombre disposition, remarkable intelligence, broad range of combat skills and respect for human life – i.e. the reason why Batman does not kill his enemies – is what most people find so fascinating. Paradoxically, while acting within the boundaries of the law and not killing off his adversaries, the Dark Knight becomes responsible for the death of innocent people – each of his enemies escaped from their place of confinement at least once, and each of these escapades resulted in several accidental victims. Batman seems to realise that monsters such as the Joker or Mr Zsasz would kill again if only given the opportunity, but he cannot and does not want to close the case for good. Some call it stupidity, other a tragic conflict of the character, but the Dark Knight is a personality full of contradictions, which makes him even more interesting and inspiring. This last statement seem to be confirmed by constantly emerging new comic book projects, which often surprise with their originality, introduce new observations about the character, his endless struggle with evil and with himself.

Dark city

The hero reflects his settings, and in this case it means they are dark and too often deprived of all hope. The city is yet another reason why Batman stories would never lack new faithful fans. Gotham is a terrifying metropolis, full of dark secrets, where evil lurks everywhere, from gloomy streets and alleys (perversely called after distinguished Batman’s creators) to penthouses in skyscrapers. A particular concentration of madness and monstrosity is undoubtedly Arkham Asylum, an institution for the criminally insane, which houses the most dangerous among Batman’s adversaries, when he finally catches them. The absolute, many-faced evil requires an absolute opposite, personified of course by Batman himself. What saves the city from plunging into chaos is both its masked and costumed heroes and ordinary policemen led by hard, incorruptible Commissioner James Gordon. And he is just one of many excellent supporting characters in the comic books about the Dark Knight. Others include the amazing British butler of the Wayne family – Alfred Pennyworth, with his sarcastic outlook on life and his employer’s secretive actions. Thanks to such characters as Alfred, Jim Gordon and sergeant Harvey Bullock, these stories gain a particular, very realistic taste. Quite often we observe Batman’s actions through their eyes, the eyes of ordinary people who believe the Dark Knight is more than a mere mortal man.

The Dark Knight is decidedly the most interesting comic book character in America, or even in the world. He is a hero for whom the walls of comic book ghetto proved to be much to frail.

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