Ever since his debut in the pages of “Detective Comics” in 1939, Batman has been one of the most popular characters in comic history. In fact, a recent poll by the fan magazine “Comic Heroes” placed Batman at the top of a list of the greatest superheroes of all time, beating out other favorites like Spider-Man, Superman and Wolverine.
With the release of “The Dark Knight Rises” threatening to shatter box-office records this weekend, here’s a look back at the history of the Caped Crusader in media, which ranges from early comics and a campy TV show to more recent movies, animated TV series and video games that take on a darker tone — and ratings that suggest they aren’t for young children.
Like so many characters, Batman’s origin actually began with Superman. Action Comics No. 1 in 1938, the seminal first appearance of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Kryptonian brainchild, was, simply put, the Big Bang of the superhero universe. It started everything.
At a time when other popular comic books like “The Shadow” and “Dick Tracy” sold between 200,000 and 400,000 copies per issue, those featuring the Man of Steel routinely sold around 900,000. Bob Kane, a young cartoonist at DC, decided to try to duplicate that success for the company’s flagship anthology series “Detective Comics” by creating a superhero detective — part Superman, part Sherlock Holmes.
The earliest concept, though, was a far cry from the Batman audiences would come to know. Kane’s first drawings featured a character in a gloveless, mostly red costume with a domino mask and stiff bat wings (inspired, of all things, by Leonardo Da Vinci’s flying contraption, the ornithopter).
With the collaboration of writer Bill Finger, however, “the Bat-Man,” as he was originally known, gradually took form. The final product managed to straddle the gap between the new superhero genre and the pulp comics it was supplanting, incorporating elements from both Superman and characters like the Shadow, the Phantom and Zorro.
Along with design, Finger also contributed the details of Batman’s secret identity, naming him after Scottish patriot Robert the Bruce and Revolutionary War hero Mad Anthony Wayne (who, in the comics, is said to be Bruce Wayne’s ancestor). Perhaps the most important contribution, though, was the tragic backstory Finger wrote in order to justify the character’s extraordinary exploits.
The final ingredient that transformed Bob Kane’s “The Bat-Man” into the classic comic hero came from DC editor Frederic Whitney Ellsworth. Ellsworth had become concerned at the amount of violence depicted in the character’s early stories. Like other pulp heroes, the Caped Crusader was not, at first, above using guns or even lethal force to dispatch his enemies. At Ellsworth’s insistence, however, Finger and Kane adopted the famous “no-kill” rule, a decision that has had a profound influence on the history of the character in both comics and film.
Batman for all seasons
Batman’s first appearance in “Detective Comics” No. 27 was, as one might assume from the book’s title, in the role of a detective, using his amazing (but not superhuman) skills of deduction to solve “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.” Over the decades, however, Batman has worn many masks — from the World’s Greatest Detective to the Caped Crusader to the Dark Knight.
As Bob Kane said, “Maybe every 10 years Batman has to go through an evolution to keep up with the times.”
As the popularity of detective stories waned, Batman adapted to find new audiences. In the 1950s, a period considered by many fans to be a dark age for the character, that meant an increased emphasis on sci-fi elements and novelty for the sake of novelty. Alien invasions, new additions to the burgeoning Bat-family like Batwoman and Ace the Bat-hound, and sci-fi-themed villains such as Mr. Freeze were all par for the course.
In the 1960s, Batman and his teenage ward Dick Grayson — the first of at least three different characters to call themselves Robin — achieved an unprecedented level of popularity outside of comics thanks to a campy TV series and movie starring Adam West as the titular hero. This was followed up by an animated show called “The Batman/Superman Hour.”
The lighthearted tone of Batman’s television incarnations was also reflected in the comics from this period, and it wasn’t until the late 1980s that Batman was completely reinvented once again thanks to acclaimed graphic novels like Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” and Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke.” In these, Batman was recast as the brooding protector of a crime-ridden metropolitan nightmare, and the stakes were suddenly much more real for the Dark Knight and his sidekicks. The at-times oppressively dark tone of the new Batman stories reinvigorated comic sales and helped set the stage for Batman’s return to the big screen in 1989.
Batman on film
In hindsight, Tim Burton’s “Batman,” starring Michael Keaton (“Beetlejuice”) as the Dark Knight, is by no means a perfect adaptation of the character — it’s far more Burton than Bob Kane. However, the director’s characteristically twisted depiction of the Caped Crusader helped establish the dark, brooding hero comic fans had come to appreciate for mainstream audiences, replacing the camp of Adam West. “Batman” (PG-13) went on to become the highest grossing film of 1989 and spawned three sequels (“Batman Returns,” “Batman Forever” and the critically reviled “Batman and Robin,” all PG-13) before collapsing under the weight of neon-lit sets.
Burton’s film also paved the way for a series of animated TV shows under the creative guidance of producers Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. Set in a highly stylized “dark deco” city full of mobsters and femme fatales pulled straight out of a pulp novel, “Batman: The Animated Series” (1993-1995, rated TV-PG) and its successors (“The New Batman Adventures” and “Batman Beyond,” both TV-PG) are still considered to be among the best portrayals of Batman in any medium. The show’s voice cast, including Luke Skywalker himself (Mark Hamill) as the Joker, became so identified with their characters, in fact, that many of them reprised their roles for Rocksteady’s critically acclaimed video games, “Batman: Arkham Asylum” and “Batman: Arkham City” (both rated T for Teens).
The Dark Knight trilogy
Before Christopher Nolan took over the reins for 2005’s “Batman Begins,” Warner Bros. had considered a number of options to reboot the lucrative franchise on the big screen. High-profile directors like the Wachowski siblings (“The Matrix,” “Speed Racer”) and Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler,” “Black Swan”) were approached with the possibility of adapting Frank Miller’s influential origin story “Batman: Year One.” Ultimately, that project was axed, although a number of elements from “Year One” still show up in “Batman Begins” (PG-13).
The studio finally opted for the relatively inexperienced Nolan because of his grounded take on both the world and the character of Batman, whom the director described as “an ordinary man who does a lot of push-ups.”3 comments on this story
Critics of the Nolan films sometimes point out that his Caped Crusader is not entirely accurate to the Batman of the comics. If anything, “The Dark Knight Rises” (PG-13) looks to move even farther away from established canon, which could leave some diehard fans out in the cold.
Over the character’s 70-plus-year history, however, Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s creation has proved to be open to multiple interpretations. Because of that, whether as the World’s Greatest Detective or the Gotham Guardian, Batman continues to intrigue audiences with his complex psychology and dynamic characterization.
Sources: “Batman: The Complete History,” by Les Daniels; “Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon,” by Will Brooker; “Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America,” by Bradford W. Wright.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.