A dark and mysterious figure stands on the tallest building in the city as the full moon rises, illuminating the masked crusader in shadow and moonlight. His cape whips around him; his dark eyes, beneath the mask, search for his enemies. Where in Gotham City is the Joker lurking? Batman watches for the Bat-Signal; his symbol is a call-to-arms, to fight evil and render aid to the innocent. But who is this Caped Crusader?
Batman has traversed decades and changed from dark and flawed to comical and campy. And now with Batman currently more sinister and gritty, how did we get here?
Beginnings of Batman
Batman was created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane and first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in May of 1939. The hero was born from tragedy when, as a young boy, Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered by a thief in a dark alley. Bruce vowed to avenge their deaths and thereby declared war on the criminals of Gotham City.
Batman became so popular that the comic book hero received his own title in 1940 – rare for the time. His rise to fame was, in part, due to his character flaw: he was extremely aggressive with criminals, even disfiguring them if he felt it necessary. Batman was influenced by previous characters like Zorro or the Scarlet Pimpernel with a penchant for playing a brooding, rich aristocrat in public while performing heroic deeds in secret.
Transition of Batman
"The world's greatest detective", Batman began to transition from solitary and brooding lifestyle to adopting Robin as his sidekick. He was also leaving behind his dark world for a "brighter" future. It was during the 1950s that the Batman comics were criticized by a noted psychologist, Fredric Wertham, who wrote in his dastardly Seduction of the Innocent that Batman and Robin had "homosexual overtones" and that the children were morally corrupted by the criminal themes of comic books. Wertham's writings on the effects of comic books on children later helped to lead to the formation of the Comics Code Authority, which banned violence and sexual themes in comics, withholding their stamp of approval unless a title met their standards of morality. One ponders whether or not popular 1950s supporting character Batwoman was introduced to the comics in order to contradict the homosexual connotations between Batman and Robin.
Those changes and declining sales led to a campy TV version of Batman in the 1960s starring Adam West. The sixties TV show was essentially a parody of both the original comic books and the Batman film serials from the forties. The show was largely a reflection of the sort of pop-art treatment employed by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein that poked fun at the artifice of comic books. This successfully introduced the characters to a younger generation, but comic book fans felt slighted. In turn, the campier treatment of the TV show informed campier Batman comic books.
Dark Knight Rises
The show's comical features and campiness faded and the Batman series declined as the 1960s became the 1970s, when Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams began to reintroduce dark elements to their Batman comics, notably in "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge" which examines the Joker's origins as someone who murders his victims just for kicks. Then in the 1980s, Frank Miller revamped Batman, and brought back many of Batman's dark characteristics. Miller's vision revitalized the character, and demonstrated to the world that a darker Batman could prove lucrative.
In Miller's Dark Knight Returns, Bruce Wayne is now in his fifties, and, disgusted with retirement and with a sharp spike in street crime, he dons the bat suit once again to save Gotham City. Dark Knight saw the colorful hero transformed into something more sinister, and capitalized on Batman's flaw found in his character since the beginning: a lack of remorse for the ones he killed. The change was incredible.
Comic book audiences and mainstream media responded to the darker vision of the caped crusader. Michael Uslan, who has produced virtually every Batman film ever made from the first Tim Burton movie to Nolan's last, credits Frank Miller with demonstrating to the world that a more serious Batman could prove to be profitable.
One of the most significant films in the Batman canon was Nolan's first installment, Batman Begins. While the narrative itself didn't borrow very much from Miller's work, it did contain some of the tone and overall feel of the Miller comics (and in fact, Nolan's films borrow many things from Miller's work). The most notable nods to Miller appear in Nolan's subsequent Batman films, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises: the exceedingly evil Joker in The Dark Knight is similar to Miller's conception of the character; the elderly and well-worn Bruce Wayne in Dark Knight Rises is reminiscent of Miller's comics; and another similarity, which is consistent throughout Nolan's series, is the emphasis placed on sensationalistic TV news.
Further proof of the resonance of Miller's work is the fact that a feature-length animated adaptation of his Batman comics, appropriately entitled The Dark Knight Returns, was released in 2012. The film is a must-see for anyone who was either a fan of either the Miller comics or Batman: The Animated Series. And thankfully, The Dark Knight Returns animated program is streamable in high definition from Amazon and DTV (see their website), and this should hopefully provide a nice counterpoint to the upcoming DVD release of the Adam West series — we really don't need a new generation of kids with a polluted idea of who Batman is, and what he's good for. Meanwhile contemporary DC comics writer Scott Snyder is in many ways keeping this tradition alive, with his Batman series such as "The Black Mirror" or the "Skeleton Cases."
Very few comic book characters have withstood drastic reinventions over time, but Batman continues to stand tall among his critics and fans. Both Batman and his alter ego, Bruce Wayne, have had a convoluted past as a detective hero with dark flaws, a campy personality on TV, and an aging man coming out of retirement to save his crime-ridden city. Some wonder, when the next bat-signal alights, what kind of Batman will be behind the mask?