Superhero Makeovers: Batman
Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible…
A seemingly perfect counterbalance to Superman, Batman first appeared in 1939 in Detective Comics #27. A creation of Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman was dark and brooding where Superman was colorful and bright, fallible where Superman was seemingly invincible. He perfectly defined the other side of costumed superheroes, becoming the archetype of the highly competent yet still mortal vigilante.
Along with Superman and Wonder Woman, Batman forms DC Comics’ “Big Three,” the most recognizable and longest-lasting comic book icons in history. That recognition doesn’t give him immunity to people mucking around with the core concept of who the character is, though.
Rise of the Dark Knight:
While Superman was a mold-breaker for his time, Batman was surprisingly similar to a lot of other costumed heroes at the time. His dual life as a rich playboy by day and a costumed crimefighter by night mirrored Johnston McCulley’s Zorro. His tactics and hard stance on crime resembled characters such as Doc Savage and the Shadow. Outside of the strange costume, Batman didn’t seem all that different from many other pulp heroes.
While I’m sure there are others more knowledgeable than I on the matter, my hypothesis on what made Batman such a big hit is twofold. First, he had a costume, and a very distinctive one at that. Following Superman’s early success, the public was looking for more superheroes, and Batman gave them a different kind of masked avenger. He had a strange costume like Superman, but its weird design added a lot of intrigue to the character. Batman’s outfit has been redesigned many times over the years, even changing colors between blue, black, and gray, but the pointed-ear cowl, long cape, and bat symbols have remained constant because they are so iconic. Second, like the newspaper strip hero Dick Tracy, Batman quickly found himself with one of the best rogue’s gallery in all of fiction. It wasn’t enough to have him just face off against normal street thugs – he instead did battle with disfigured monsters, injecting a fantasy-like quality to the crime-fighting story. When he first began, Batman was a faceless crimefighter battling against some of the most deranged criminals one could find. In his first appearance, his secret identity as Bruce Wayne wasn’t even revealed until the last page of the story. Even before his personality was in place, Batman’s look and the beginnings of his rogue’s gallery put him on the map.
Origins of the Batman:
Unlike most superheroes, I count Batman’s origin story as a major change in his status quo. Unlike many other superheroes, Batman didn’t start with an origin. His tale didn’t even start at the beginning – in Detective Comics #27, Batman had already been fighting crime for some time. We wouldn’t even see a glimpse into the early years of the Caped Crusader for almost fifty years, when Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli presented the world with Batman: Year One. Without an origin, it took a while to nail down his character. The Batman of 1939 differed from the modern version in many ways, most notably his tendency to kill. He didn’t go out of his way to kill criminals, but he didn’t mind if they fell into a vat of acid, and he had no compunctions against tossing them off the roof of a skyscraper. In some early stories, he used guns, which has since become one of Batman’s biggest taboos.
Batman got his origin story in Detective Comics #33, and it changed the way writers approached the character for years to come. A young boy who watched his parents get gunned down in front of him by a nameless mugger, Bruce Wayne dedicated his life to fighting crime. Although it didn’t happen immediately, that origin helped solidify Batman as a man who fought not out of some hatred of crime but because he longed for a world where a boy would never lose his parents to some thug with a gun. Had this origin story not been told, I think the modern Batman would look a lot more like the Punisher: a hardened man who did whatever it took to take out criminals.
The Boy Wonder:
Batman’s early years continued transforming him from a heartless force of vengeance to a humanized superhero who fought crime to protect the innocent. And while it wasn’t a change to the character himself, Detective Comics #38 continued this process of humanization by giving him a kid sidekick called Robin. Like Batman, acrobat Dick Grayson lost his family to criminals. He was taken in by Bruce Wayne and eventually given a costume of his own. Robin began as a push by DC Comics to make Batman more kid friendly, but the character developed into far more than a marketing gimmick. Stories throughout the Gold and Silver Ages emphasized Batman’s need for companionship despite his apparent status as a loner. A prime example would be the tale “Robin Dies at Dawn” from Batman #156, where the mere hallucination of Robin’s death paralyzes Batman with fear and almost ends his career as a crimefighter.
As the years went on, Dick Grayson eventually grew into adulthood and took on a new identity as Nightwing, but Robin remained important to Batman, as he quickly took on a new ward named Jason Todd. Following Jason Todd’s death at the hands of the Joker, a boy named Tim Drake noticed that Batman was becoming more suicidal in his actions and took on the mantle of Robin after concluding that Batman needed a Robin in order to stay sane.
Adam West, Adam West…:
Comic books in general took a hit during the 1950s and 1960s due to the Comics Code Authority. Basically, a bunch of politicians got it into their heads that comic books were corrupting our youth. Because politicians are just sooooo good at judging right from wrong, they decided that comic books needed to be cleansed of violence and bad messages. Few superheroes were hit harder than the gritty detective Batman, who suddenly became light-hearted and campy. The Joker, one of his most brutal and deadly villains, became a madcap clown. For a very long time, Batman was no longer the Dark Knight but rather a boisterous, cheerful crimefighter whose adventures ranged from the ludicrous to the bizarre.
Ironically, in seemingly ruining Batman, the Comics Code Authority actually wound up creating one of his most popular incarnations. In the 1960s television adaptation starring the great and powerful Adam West, Batman embraced that campiness and played it for laughs. The television show still ruffled some feather, largely because Adam West and Burt Ward realized the homoerotic overtones between Batman and Robin and played that up through their ad-libbing. Moreover, they took much of the anger thrown their way by concerned parents and turned it on its side, making it a part of the humor. For example, when somebody raised a concern that the Batmobile had no seatbelts, the next episode featured Batman admonishing Robin that he should always buckle up before racing off in costume to deliver vigilante justice against thieves and murderers.
Because of his excellent delivery and charisma in the role, the Adam West version of Batman greatly influenced the comics, taking those weird adventures and turning them into something that can be played for laughs. For fans of the grimmer and darker Batman, West’s performance was even somewhat damaging, keeping Batman’s perception as a campy superhero long past the point where the Comics Code became more lenient. Even when Tim Burton did a new, darker film adaptation of the Caped Crusader in 1989, many people still believed that the only true Batman was Adam West. Love it or hate it, the campy period of Batman changed the character for decades. With the arguable exception of Christopher Reeves as Superman, no actor has so greatly influenced a comic book icon as Adam West.
The Triple Whammy:
The Bronze Age of comics is usually defined as the period around the 1970s and 1980s when the Comics Code Authority became less restrictive and comics started to become more mature again. During the Bronze Age, Batman began to return to being the Dark Knight again, but he still kept some remnants from his campy period, too. The Joker in the Golden Age, for example, had been a homicidal maniac with a clown face as his only real gimmick. In the Silver Age, he became a harmless jokester and buffoon. The Bronze Age combined those two versions, turning Batman’s number one villain into an insane comedian whose jokes ended in murder. Batman became a more serious figure again, but still referred to Robin as, “Chum.” All of that changed with the triple whammy of iconic Batman comics in the 1980s.
1986 brought us Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Although an out-of-continuity story that took place in a future where Batman had grown old, it added a lot of iconic moments to the Batman mythos, including Martha Wayne’s broken pearl necklace that hit the pavement of Crime Alley as she was gunned down in front of young Bruce Wayne’s eyes. There was no hint of campiness in Miller’s tale, and its success took root in mainstream continuity. Notably, Batman stopped cracking jokes or showing himself as anything but serious. The climactic battle between Batman and Superman in The Dark Knight Returns also established Batman as the master of preparation, capable of doing almost anything with enough prep-time. It’s at this point that I think Batman stopped being a guy with no powers. When you can stand toe-to-toe with Superman and literally fight gods, you are no longer a normal human, regardless of how often the comics state that you have no super powers.
Two years after The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore wrote the one-shot The Killing Joke, which explored the Joker’s tortured mind and his possible past. Although it didn’t have a major impact on Batman’s powers or look, it continued moving him toward the humorless vigilante of today. The Joker also stopped being someone that readers could see as remotely harmless as he shot Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) in the spine, ending her crimefighting career, then attempted to drive Commissioner Gordon insane by stripping him naked and tormenting him with pictures of his wounded daughter.
Finally, in 1989, we got the third part of Batman’s grim-darkening. In A Death in the Family, the Joker continued showing how dangerous and evil he had become when he killed Robin. And we’re not talking about a quick bullet to the brain or something that could be glossed over between panels. The Joker beat Robin to the brink of death with a crowbar. Then, just to make sure the job was done, he blew up the building in which the helpless Robin lay. Robin’s actual fate was left up to readers. In a move that really demonstrated how comics fans both despised Jason Todd as a replacement for Dick Grayson and had grown jaded with comics where the heroes always escaped by the skin of their teeth, readers dialed in on a phone survey to vote Robin dead. Following the change in tone started with The Dark Knight Returns, the crippling of Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke, and the death of Robin in A Death in the Family, all in a period of only three years, any trace of humor was lost for a very long time in Batman. And writers were at their limit as well. I mean, what else can you do to a guy who has lost that much? Well, you could have him fight all his villains at once and then have some guy on super-steroids break his back, but that would just be crazy.
Wait a minute…
As I mentioned in the Superhero Makeovers discussion about Superman, the death of Superman told both DC and Marvel that one of the easiest ways to make money was to either kill or replace an iconic character. Superman died, Spider-Man got cloned, the Green Lantern went insane, and Batman…well, Batman got broken.
The three story arcs Knightfall, Knightquest, and Knightsend followed along an almost archetypal structure for a saga. Knightfall saw Batman against a conflict greater than he had ever encountered, Knightquest dealt with his fall from grace and subsequent climb back, and Knightsend brought the story full circle, returning the hero to the status quo. Depending on who you ask, it was either a brilliant marketing ploy or a clever commentary on the more brutal heroes of the 1990s. In truth, it’s a little bit of both.
Knightfall introduced the villain Bane, a man who was at once Batman’s equal and his opposite. Where Bruce Wayne had his parents’ fortune to help provide training and hone his skills, Bane began with nothing, born and raised in the brutal prison of Santa Prisca. While Batman saw the world as something inherently good that needed saving, Bane saw it as just another prison to be controlled. Despite these differences, Bane was Batman’s physical and mental equal, self-trained and self-taught. He came to Gotham in hopes of conquering it as his own, and saw Batman as the big guy in the prison who had to be made an example of. Aided by a super-steroid called Venom that gave him near-superhuman strength, Bane had a plan that was both simple and cunning: blow up Arkham Asylum and let all of Batman’s old villains run loose in Gotham.
For most of Knightfall, Bane merely watched Batman from afar as the gauntlet of criminals wore him down physically and emotionally. In observing his body language and mannerisms, he deduced that Batman was Bruce Wayne. Finally, with Batman too exhausted to fight back, Bane confronted his quarry in the Batcave itself, manhandling Batman in a fight and breaking his spine.
Following Bruce Wayne’s defeat, someone else had to take over the mantle of Batman. Bruce chose not to have Dick Grayson take over, citing that he had become his own man in taking on the identity of Nightwing. Instead, he handed the mantle over to the mentally unstable Jean-Paul Valley, a man who had been raised and brainwashed by an insane cult before being rescued by Batman. The brainwashing wasn’t all out of his system, and while Bruce recuperated, Jean-Paul designed a new, more brutal Batman costume, with deadly weapons and powerful armor built in. Jean-Paul wound up defeating Bane, but in his attempt to reclaim Gotham City, he started killing criminals. This was at least partially an address to fans of the more brutal direction that superheroes in the 1990s had taken, showing for the first time in several decades a Batman who was willing to take lives. The direction quickly became unpopular with fans, who didn’t want to psychotic Jean-Paul Valley as their beloved Dark Knight. Ultimately, during Knightsend, a recuperated Bruce Wayne returned and defeated Jean-Paul, reclaiming the mantle of Batman.
Knightfall gave Batman the same type of treatment Superman had received in The Death of Superman, breaking the hero down, putting him on hiatus, and forcing him to claw his way back to relevance. In some ways, it was almost like a rite of passage for the iconic superheroes who many modern fans had begun to see as outdated – both Superman and Batman got XTREME! and NTENSE! replacements that killed and did the dark sort of things that 1990s superheroes were supposed to do. Had any one of those replacements been popular with fans, the change could have easily become permanent. Instead, the older heroes rose back up to reclaim the mantle, showing that they were still timeless, even in a world that was drastically changing.
As a side note, Bane himself became one of my favorite comic book villains during this run. He’s had a lot of character development since, including breaking his Venom habit, becoming more of an anti-hero than a villain, and gaining a surrogate daughter in Gail Simone’s Secret Six comic. So to Joel Schumacher and Akiva Goldsman, who respectively directed and wrote the abominable Batman & Robin movie and in the process turned one of the most complex comic book characters in recent history into a mute, mindless thug, all I can say is FUCK YOU!!!
The Death of Batman:
Apparently, a rule of comics is that everyone has to die at least once. Batman ran up against his end in the 2008 storyline Final Crisis, written by Grant Morrison. You’d think that Batman would meet his end in his own comic, particularly since Morrison had also just written a story called Batman: RIP in which Batman surprisingly does not die, but I guess that made too much sense. No, Morrison decided that he wanted Batman to go out the same way he had been created: with a gun.
The events of Final Crisis involve the villain Darkseid from Jack Kirby’s New Gods taking over the Earth with the Anti-Life Equation, a mathematical formula that erases a person’s free will (who says mathematicians aren’t evil?). Batman, realizing what is at stake, goes against his long-held aversion to guns and takes a literal magic bullet that Darkseid used to kill his rival Orion at the beginning of this mess of a storyline. Batman then shoots Darkseid with said gun, while simultaneously getting blasted by Darkseid’s Omega Beams, powerful eye lasers that kill instantly and cannot be dodged.
My big problem with this situation is that Batman uses a gun. I don’t care what sort of symbolism Morrison was trying and failing to achieve with this scene – Batman does not use guns. Yes, he did use guns early on, but, as I explained earlier, that was before his character had really developed into the modern icon he is now. It just makes no sense, and it goes against every tenant of the character. It has long been established that Batman is just a stone’s throw away from going psycho himself, and giving him a gun to shoot at his enemies is the quickest way he could finally lose it. And I don’t buy the explanation of, “There was no other way.” THIS IS THE GODDAMN BATMAN! There is always another way! The man has a million contingency plans for pouring his cereal in the morning. Given a time-traveling, god-killing bullet, he should be able to do just about anything. Don’t give him a fucking gun!
My other problem with this storyline is that it pulls a power out of Darkseid’s ass in a lame attempt to surprise the reader with the revelation that…gasp…Batman is not really dead! No, instead of shooting him with his insta-death beams, Darkseid whipped out a new power called the Omega Sanction, which instead just threw Batman back in time as part of some convoluted plot that I can’t even begin to bother explaining. Anyway, naturally Batman finds his way back to the future and picks up the mantle again.
Despite my bitching about Final Crisis, Grant Morrison has done some interesting things with Batman. After a decade of him being a Bat-dick to everyone he met, Morrison brought Batman’s humanity back, having him adopt Tim Drake (aka the third Robin) as his son. And while I disagree with the way Batman’s death was handled, it gave a chance for Dick Grayson to step into the mantle of Batman while Batman’s son Damien (raised by Talia al-Ghul and existing because Morrison didn’t properly research a story he wanted to shoehorn into continuity) took over as the new Robin. This gave a chance for a fun-loving Batman and a jerk of a Robin, which was a nice change. It was also something of an apology to folks who wondered why Dick didn’t replace Bruce as Batman back during Knightfall, since he would have been a more logical choice than the insane Jean-Paul Valley. And the death of Batman did set up our newest superhero makeover, which at the very least looks like it could be interesting…
The Batman comics of today are in the throes of another major upheaval masterminded by Grant Morrison. Following his return to the present and the discovery of how effective Dick Grayson has been as Batman (not to mention Tim Drake as Red Robin, Kate Kane as Batwoman, Stephanie Brown as Batgirl, and the number of other Gotham-based vigilantes), Bruce Wayne has gone public…sort of. At a press conference, he revealed to the world that he has been funding Batman in secret for years. (This being a comic book universe, I’m assuming we’re not going to have long drawn-out storylines as he’s investigated by his shareholders and the government for pulling off a misappropriation scam that makes the Enron scandal look like peanuts.) He hasn’t admitted to being Batman himself, but the revelation that the seemingly buffoonish Bruce Wayne has been funding the Batman is pretty major in the comic book universe. Additionally, Bruce is going one step further: he’s recruiting vigilantes everywhere for Batman, Incorporated. Seriously. That’s what it’s called. Batman is going global, with many people taking up the mantle and fighting crime internationally. I have no idea how this direction will bear out, but I have to give credit to Morrison and company here for at least coming up with something pretty original.
So that’s Batman. His iconic look may have been defined in the 1930s, but his personality and history have been fleshed out a lot since then. He’s taken up a code against killing, gained a pretty massive family for a loner, and now is going global with his war on crime. He’s been a force of vengeance, a complete joke, and everywhere in between over the years. He’s now been around for over 70 years, and it looks like he’ll be around for at least 70 more.