Entry updated 2 May 2022. Tagged: Character, Comics.
This Comic-book crimefighter, the archetypal masked avenger (though influenced by earlier such figures, notably The Shadow), nicknamed "The Caped Crusader" and "The Dark Knight", has become a twentieth-century Icon. He is not a Superhero in the strictest sense, since he is represented as having no superhuman abilities; however, his near-impossible strength, stamina and athletic prowess are bolstered by a wide range of frequently science-fictional gadgets (see Inventions).
Created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger (1914-1974), although Kane received the lion's share of the credit, Batman is the bizarre alter ego of millionaire socialite Bruce Wayne. His adventures take place in Gotham City, a version of New York with Gothic overtones. Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939) in a six-page story subtitled The Case of the Chemical Syndicate; an introduction read: "The 'Bat-Man', a mysterious and adventurous figure fighting for righteousness and apprehending the wrong-doer, in his lone battle against the evil forces of society ... his identity remains unknown." In the opening scene, Police Commissioner Gordon, a character who has remained a key figure throughout Batman's long history, is seen chatting with "his young socialite friend Bruce Wayne" when a telephone call informs him of a murder. Subsequent scenes introduce the Bat-Man, who dispatches one criminal by pitching him off a roof and another by dumping him in a vat of acid – "A fitting end to his kind," Batman opines dourly. The story concludes with Commissioner Gordon recounting the events to Wayne, whom he privately views as "a nice young chap – but he must lead a boring life". The last frame reveals that Wayne is the Bat-Man.
The character was an instant success, and further stories were published in Detective Comics and in a new quarterly comic book, Batman (launched Spring 1940), with Batman dispassionately killing criminals in diverse ways. When in 1941 the USA began to take part in World War Two, however, Batman's publishers, DC National (later DC Comics), became uncomfortable with the violence, and Batman became a more pacifist figure: "The Batman never carries or kills with a gun" (Batman #4 1941).
A two-page feature in Detective Comics #33 (1940) told how a 12-year old Bruce Wayne witnessed the shooting of his parents by a petty criminal and vowed "... to avenge their deaths by spending my life warring on all criminals". A chance sighting of a bat as he ruminates on his need for a disguise leads to the birth of "The Batman". This origin story has been retold and embellished many times.
Detective Comics #38 (1940) introduced young Dick Grayson, son of husband-and-wife trapeze act The Flying Graysons, who had been killed by a gang boss. Dick, recruited as Batman's aide, became Robin, billed from the beginning as "The Boy Wonder"; the pair were later dubbed "The Dynamic Duo". Batman #16 introduced the chubby Englishman, Alfred Beagle, a Shakespearean actor and brilliant detective, who was to become the butler at Wayne Manor. In Detective #83 (1944) Alfred became tall and thin, and in Batman #214 (1969) he was renamed Alfred Pennyworth. Batwoman (wealthy heiress Kathy Kane) was introduced in Detective Comics #233 (1956), and her niece Betty made a few appearances as Bat-Girl in 1961, wearing a flamboyant mask and party frock; in 1966 Commissioner Gordon's librarian daughter donned a very sexy skintight costume to become a more readily recognizable Batgirl (Detective Comics #359).
With the publication of an increasing number of stories featuring Batman, the original idea was embellished with the introduction of the Batcave, a Technology-packed cavern beneath Wayne Manor, accessed via a grandfather clock in the study; here were parked a specially built high-powered auto – first introduced in Detective Comics #30 (1939) but not referred to as the Batmobile until #48 (1941) – the Batgyro (Detective Comics #31 1939; later the Batcopter), the Batplane (Batman #4 1941), etc. All Batman's vehicles, along with the gadgets contained in his utility belt, have been frequently enhanced and updated.
Batman by now faced a gallery of bizarre regular villains – a convention already partly established by Chester Gould (1900-1985) in his long-running Dick Tracy newspaper strip. The first was Batman's most enduring adversary, The Joker (Batman #1 1940); others have been The Cat (Batman #1; renamed Catwoman in #2), The Penguin (Detective #58 1941), Two-Face – Harvey Kent, later renamed Harvey Dent (Detective Comics #66 1942) – and The Riddler (Detective #140 1948).
The character of Batman and the stories in which he features have undergone many changes since his first appearance. The "eerie figure of the night" image created in 1939 softened considerably after the creation of Robin: during World War Two he swung in on his Batrope chirping wittily, "Mind if I join the party? So sorry to drop in so unexpectedly this way!" before socking wrongdoers cleanly on the jaw, wisecracking tediously the while, and taking advantage of every opportunity to exhort the reader to "buy war bonds and stamps".
The Kane/Finger creative team was extended to include artists Jerry Robinson (1922-2011), Sheldon Moldoff (1920-2012), Dick Sprang (1915-2000), George Roussos (1915-2000), Jack Burnley (1911-2006) and others. Finger remained the chief writer. Kane was often the sole creator whose name was attached to these stories, although his own contributions were often minimal.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s there was increasing US public concern over the moral climate. During the McCarthy era (1950-1954) this crusade intensified, focusing on popular literature, and many comics creators reacted by stressing the moral uprightness of their characters. Batman became, in the words of one commentator "a kind of benign scoutmaster" – who on one occasion actually gave his readers a full-page lecture on sportsmanship and racial equality (Batman #57 1950). Nevertheless, the main theme of the stories remained the catching of criminals – albeit some rather strange ones at times – through detection, Batman's own brand of forensic science, and the strength and agility of the Dynamic Duo. Nor did the tradition of Batman operating at night entirely disappear.
The publication of Seduction of the Innocent (1954) by Frederick Wertham caused a revolution in the Comics publishing industry. Wertham claimed to present scientific proof of a significant causal connection between comics-reading and criminal behaviour; he also saw evidence of homosexuality in the relationship between Batman and Robin. DC National reacted by making the stories more fanciful. Batman began to have conflicts with aliens from distant planets and other dimensions, became involved in Time Travel, and encountered ferocious Monsters – indeed, actually became monstrous himself from time to time, turning on one occasion into a human fish (Batman #118 1958).
In 1964 a major revamp of the character – now drawn by Carmine Infantino (1925-2013) – was undertaken in an attempt to return to the eerie and threatening figure of the night; this attempt was undermined when the television series started in 1966. Batman now became a very hot property for DC: within months of the first broadcast, about 1000 Batman products had been licensed, including models, Toy mask-and-cape sets and a vast range of paraphernalia carrying the Batman logo. Many of the comic-book stories aped the Pop Art camp of the television shows.
This influence was short-lived. In 1969 new writers and artists were brought in to reassess thoroughly the original image of the "grim crimefighter driven by an obsession born of tragedy". The fantasy elements associated with the bat costume were retained, but the camp silliness and cod sf were jettisoned. Dick Grayson (Robin) went to college (Batman #217 1969) and was thus effectively discarded; although he turned up again from time to time and featured in a number of solo adventures, his association with Batman was eventually terminated.
Neal Adams, with writer Denny O'Neil (1939-2020), enhanced Infantino's concept of Batman. In Adams's hands – and those of artists Jim Aparo (1932-2005), Dick Giordano (1932-2010) and Irv Novick (1916-2004) – the character underwent a remarkable metamorphosis. The visual image became darker and intensely dramatic. Now Batman was a realistically drawn figure of the night; the new stories were character-led crime thrillers (see Crime and Punishment) or psychological thrillers spiced with elements of supernatural fiction. The Joker, Two-Face and other weird villains were presented as psychotic criminals with appropriate psychological profiles. Batman had a number of romantic involvements with female characters – most memorably during this period with one Talia, the daughter of an interesting new villain, Ra's al Ghul; in Adams's memorable depiction of their first kiss a shirtless Batman, still wearing the batcowl, utility belt and tight black knickers, and with blood seeping from claw-wounds across his chest, clasps the yielding beauty in a scene redolent of sadomasochism (Batman #244 1972). Their relationship was actually consummated on-page in the one-off comic book Batman: Son of the Demon (1987), as a result of which, unknown to Batman, she bore him a son.
The gallery of villains continued to expand with the introduction in 1970 of a particularly appropriate and enduring new adversary created by Frank Robbins (1917-1994) and Adams – the Man-Bat, otherwise Professor Kirk Langstrom of Gotham's Museum of Natural History, who, after injecting himself with bat-serum, mutates into a very interesting variation on the bat theme (Detective Comics #400).
Dick Grayson was replaced as Robin by Jason Todd in Batman #366 (1983), but readers were unenthusiastic and, when offered an opportunity to vote on his destiny in the three-part story A Death in the Family (Batman #426-#429; graph 1989), opted for his demise (he was later resurrected as a new character, the Red Hood). Another new Robin, Timothy Drake, was introduced in Batman #442 (1989). Drake retired temporarily after being injured by Todd, then returned as yet another new character, Red Robin. Stephanie Brown took over the mask, then was apparently killed, and now operates as the new Batgirl. The latest Robin is Damien Wayne, the son of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul who was reintroduced in Batman #655 (2006).
Frank Miller brought his revolutionary storytelling techniques to bear – along with a short, chunky, 13-year-old female Robin, Carrie Kelly – in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (books #1-#4 1986; graph 1986) (see Batman: The Dark Knight Returns). Set in an unspecified future, this deals with an ageing, cynical and disillusioned Batman coming out of a 10-year retirement to deal with a murderous cult known as the Mutants. Commissioner Gordon, now 70, is forced to retire, and is succeeded by a woman, Ellen Yindel. The Batmobile has developed into a tank, bristling with weapons and techno-wizardry, and the Batcopter has become a similarly armoured juggernaut. Aided by Robin/Carrie, Batman defeats the first the supposedly reformed but relapsed Two-Face and then leader of the Mutants, but his violence leads to his being labelled a criminal – and to the formation of another cult calling themselves Sons of the Batman. The Joker is aroused from long near-catatonic withdrawal by news of Batman's return, is "temporarily" released from Gotham's mental institution, Arkham Asylum, and immediately indulges in an orgy of mass-murder; he dies in a final confrontation with Batman, who then is himself hunted as a murderer. Superman is despatched to bring him to justice. In the showdown Batman humiliates Superman and then apparently dies of a heart-attack – to revive after his burial and be rescued by Robin. Batman enlists the remnants of the Mutants and Sons of the Batman to plan a new crime-fighting strategy in the extensive caves under a now destroyed Wayne Manor.
The publication of The Dark Knight Returns signalled DC's more open-minded policy regarding experimentation with the character, and a number of distinguished comics creators took a renewed interest. Alan Moore and Brian Bolland embellished the now well established Batman-versus-Joker ethos with the remarkable The Killing Joke (graph 1988), and Grant Morrison and Dave McKean looked deeper into the psychoses and inner drives of some of Batman's bizarre adversaries – not to mention Batman myself – in Arkham Asylum (graph 1989). Batman: The Cult (books #1-#4 1988; graph 1991) by Jim Starlin, Bernie Wrightson and Jim Wray sees Gotham City terrorized by a sewer-dwelling underclass ruled by a charismatic priest figure, the Deacon, who captures, humiliates and psychologically "breaks" Batman – though only temporarily. In Batman, Year One (Batman #404-#407 1987; graph 1988), beautifully and realistically drawn by David Mazzuchelli (1960- ), Frank Miller went on to update the Batman origin story, setting it in a 1980s Gotham. Other creators have set Batman in the 1880s for a Jack the Ripper story – Gotham by Gaslight (graph 1989) by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola, which is full of gaslight-romance effects – and in a Far Future, when all that remains of Batman is a crime-fighting Computer which he spent his final years designing and constructing – Digital Justice (graph 1990) by Jose Luis ["Pepe"] Moreno, one of the first graphic novels in which all the artwork was computer-generated.
Other imaginative new treatments of Batman continued to appear in the 1990s and beyond, leading to a chaotic proliferation of incompatible Batman stories running concurrently in various DC titles, although this period also produced some acclaimed series storylines. Frank Miller's own follow-up to The Dark Knight Returns was The Dark Knight Strikes Again (books #1-#3 2001-2002; graph 2002) with Lynn Varley. Its garish artwork and over-the-top Satire – with a slam-bang storyline featuring and often killing off many established Superheroes – had a mixed reception.
2011 brought the rebooting and relaunch of the entire DC Comics line, with all titles starting over with new first issues and simplified backstories unencumbered by sixty years of publication history. The 2011 lineup of Batman titles includes Batman, Detective Comics, Batman and Robin, and Batman: The Dark Knight, with related titles Batwing, Batgirl, Batwoman, Catwoman, Nightwing, and Red Hood and the Outlaws.
Batman has also starred in newspaper strips: a daily and Sunday series (1943-1947) written primarily by Alvin Schwartz and drawn by Kane and Burnley; a shortlived series (1953); and dailies (1966-1972) and Sundays (1966-1969) written by Whitney Ellsworth and E Nelson Bridwell, and drawn by Infantino, Moldoff, Giella, Plastino and others, then (1989-1991) written by Max Allan Collins (1948- ) and William Messner Loebs (1949- ) and drawn by Infantino and Marshall Rogers. [RT/DRo/JP]
see also: Batman [tv]; Batman Films.
- Batman, with Robin the Boy Wonder, From the 30s to the 70s (New York: Crown, 1971) [graph: reprints milestone stories from the indicated period: hb/]
- Mark Cotta Vaz. Tales of the Dark Knight: Batman's First Fifty Years: 1939-1989 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989) [nonfiction: heavily illustrated: pb/]
- Bob Kane with Tim Andrae. Batman and Me (Forestville, California: Eclipse Books, 1989) [nonfiction: Kane's autobiography: illus/Bob Kane: hb/]
- Dennis O'Neil, editor. Batman Unauthorized: Vigilantes, Jokers, and Heroes in Gotham City (Dallas, Texas: BenBella Books, 2008) [nonfiction: anth: pb/Ralph Voltz]
- Rik Worth. The Creators Of Batman: Bob, Bill & The Dark Knight (Barnsley, Yorkshire: White Owl Press, 2021) [nonfiction: hb/]
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