Batman is one of the most popular and important characters created for comic books. In the entire pantheon of comic-book superheroes, only Superman and Spider-Man rival him in significance. Among the handful of comic-book characters who have transcended the market limitations of the comic-book medium, Batman has truly become an American cultural icon and an international marketing industry in and of himself.
Batman was born out of DC editor Vincent Sullivan's desire to create a costumed character to exploit the recent success of DC's first superhero, Superman. Taking inspiration from various Hollywood adventure, horror, and gangster movies, cartoonist Bob Kane prepared a design for a masked crime-fighter in the costume of a bat in 1939. He then consulted with writer Bill Finger, who contributed to the vigilante concept ideas derived from pulp magazines. The resulting character was thus visually and thematically a synthesis of the most lurid and bizarre representations of popular culture available to a 1930s mass audience. It was a concept seemingly destined for either the trashcan or comic-book immortality.
Like Superman, Batman wore a costume, maintained a secret identity, and battled the scourge of crime and injustice. But to anyone who read the comic books, the differences between the two leading superheroes were more striking than the similarities. Unlike Super-man, Batman possessed no superhuman powers, relying instead upon his own wits, technical skills, and fighting prowess. Batman's motives were initially obscure, but after a half-dozen issues readers learned the disturbing origins of his crime-fighting crusade. As a child, Bruce Wayne had witnessed the brutal murder of his mother and father. Traumatized but determined to avenge his parents' death, Wayne used the fortune inherited from his father to assemble an arsenal of crime-fighting gadgets while training his body and mind to the pinnacle of human perfection. One night when Wayne sits contemplating an appropriate persona that will strike fear into the heats of criminals, a bat flies through the window. He takes it as an omen and declares, "I shall become a bat!"
Kane and Finger originally cast Batman as a vigilante pursued by the police even as he preyed upon criminals. Prowling the night, lurking in the shadows, and wearing a frightening costume with a hooded cowl and a flowing Dracula-like cape, Batman often looked more like a villain than a hero. In his earliest episodes, he even carried a gun and sometimes killed his opponents. The immediate popularity of his comic books testified to the recurring appeal of a crime-fighter who appropriates the tactics of criminals and operates free of legal constraints. As Batman himself once put it, "If you can't beat [criminals] 'inside' the law, you must beat them 'outside' it—and that's where I come in!"
Batman's early adventures were among the most genuinely atmospheric in comic-book history. He waged a grim war against crime in a netherworld of gloomy castles, fog-bound wharves, and the dimly lit alleys of Gotham City—an urban landscape that seemed perpetually enshrouded in night. Bob Kane was one of the first comic-book artists to experiment—however crudely—with unusual angle shots, distorted perspectives, and heavy shadows to create a disturbing mood of claustrophobia and madness. These early classic issues also rank among the most graphically violent of their time. Murder, brutality, and bloodshed were commonplace therein until 1941, when DC responded to public criticism by instituting a new code of standards to "clean up" its comic books. As a result Batman's adventures gradually moved out of the shadows and became more conventional superhero adventure stories.
The addition of Batman's teenage sidekick Robin also served to lighten the mood of the series. Kane and Finger introduced Robin, who, according to Kane, was named after Robin Hood, in the April 1940 issue of Detective Comic. They hoped that the character would open up more creative possibilities (by giving Batman someone to talk to) and provide a point of identification for young readers. Like Bruce Wayne, who adopts the orphaned youth and trains him in the ways of crime fighting, young Dick Grayson witnessed the murder of his parents.
Robin has been a figure of some controversy. Many believed that the brightly-colored costumed teenager was obnoxious and detracted too much from the premise of Batman as an obsessed and solitary avenger. Oftentimes it seemed that Robin's principle role was to be captured and await rescue by Batman. In his influential 1954 polemic against comic books, Seduction of the Innocent, Dr. Frederick Wertham even charged that the strange relationship between Batman and Robin was rife with homosexual implications. Nevertheless, the longevity and consistent commercial success of the Batman and Robin team from the 1940s to the 1960s suggested that the concept of the "Dynamic Duo" was popular with most readers.
Much of Batman's popularity over the decades must be attributed to his supporting cast of villains—arguably the cleverest and most memorable rogues gallery in comic books. Ludicrous caricatures based upon single motifs, villains like Cat Woman, Two-Face, the Penguin, and the Riddler were perfect adversaries for the equally ludicrous Batman. Without question, however, the most inspired and most popular of Batman's villains has always been the Joker. With his white face, green hair, purple suit, and perpetual leering grin, the homicidal Joker is the personification of sheer lunacy, at once delightful and horrifying. The laughing Joker was also the ideal archenemy for the stoic and rather humorless Batman, often upstaging the hero in his own comic book.
After years of strong sales, Batman's share of the comic-book market began to decline in the early 1960s. Facing stiff competition from the hip new antihero superheroes of Marvel Comics (Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four), Batman and his peers at DC epitomized the comic-book "Establishment" at a time when anti-establishment trends were predominating throughout youth culture.
In 1966, however, Batman's sales received a strong boost from a new source—television. That year the ABC television network launched the prime-time live-action series Batman. The campy program was part of a widespread trend whereby American popular culture made fun of itself. The Batman show ridiculed every aspect of the comic-book series from the impossible nobility of Batman and Robin (portrayed respectively by actors Adam West and Burt Ward, who both overacted—one would hope—deliberately) to the bewildering array of improbable gadgets (bat-shark repellent), to comic-book sound effects (Pow! Bam! Zowie!?). For a couple of years the show was a phenomenal hit. Film and television celebrities like César Romero (the Joker), Burgess Meredith (the Penguin), and Julie Newmar (Cat Woman) clamored to appear on the show, which sparked a boom in sales of toys, t-shirts, and other licensed bat-merchandise. Sales of Batman's comic book also increased dramatically for several years. But the show's lasting impact on the comic book was arguably a harmful one. For by making the entire Batman concept out to be a big joke, the show's producers seemed to be making fun of the hero's many fans who took his adventures seriously. At a time when ambitious young comic-book creators were trying to tap into an older audience, the Batman show firmly reinforced the popular perception that comic books were strictly for children and morons.
New generations of writers and artists understood this dilemma and worked to rescue Batman from the perils of his own multi-media success. Writer Dennis O'Neil and artist Neal Adams produced a series of stylish and very serious stories that did much to restore Batman to his original conception as a nocturnal avenger. These efforts did not reverse Batman's declining sales throughout the 1970s—a bad time for comic-book sales generally—but they gave the comic book a grittier and more mature tone that subsequent creators would expand upon.
In the 1980s and 1990s writers have explored the darker implications of Batman as a vigilante seemingly on the brink of insanity. In a 1986 "graphic novel" (the trendy term given to "serious" comic books—with serious prices) titled Bat Man: The Dark Knight Returns, writer Frank Miller cast the hero as a slightly mad middle-aged fascist out to violently purge a dystopian future Gotham City gutted by moral decay. The success of The Dark Knight Returns sparked a major revival in the character's popularity. A series of graphic novels and comic-book limited-series, including Batman: Year One (1987), Batman: the Killing Joke (1988), and Batman: Arkham Asylum (1989), delved into the most gothic, violent, and disturbing qualities of the Batman mythos and proved especially popular with contemporary comic-book fans.
More importantly in terms of public exposure and profits were the much-hyped series of major motion picture releases produced by DC Comics' parent company Warner Brothers featuring characters from the Batman comic book. Director Tim Burton's Batman with Michael Keaton in the title role and Jack Nicholson as the Joker was the most successful both commercially and critically. But three sequels to date have all generated impressive box office receipts, video sales, and licensing revenue while introducing DC's superhero to new generations of comic-book readers. Also in the 1990s, a syndicated Batman animated series produced by the Fox network has managed the delicate task—never really achieved by the live-action films—of broadening the character's media exposure while remaining true to the qualities of the Batman comic books.
Batman is one of the few original comic-book characters to have generated more popular interest and revenue from exposure in media other than comic books. But Batman is first and foremost a product of comic books, and it is in this medium where he has been most influential. The whole multitude of costumed avengers driven to strike fear into the hearts of evil-doers owe much to Bob Kane and Bill Finger's Batman—the original comic-book caped crusader.
Daniels, Les. DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes. Boston, Little Brown, 1995.
The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told. New York, Warner Books, 1988.
Kane, Bob, with Tom Andrae. Batman and Me: An Autobiography of Bob Kane. Forestville, California, Eclipse Books, 1989.
Pearson, Robert E., and William Uricchio, ed. The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media. New York, Routledge, 1991.
Vaz, Mark Cotta. Tales of the Dark Knight: Batman's First Fifty Years, 1939-1989. New York, Ballantine, 1989.
In 1939, the comic character first known as "The Bat-Man" made his first appearance in a six-page segment featured in the "No. 27" issue of Detective Comics. Since that time, the darkly clad and threatening crime fighter created by Bob Kane (1915–1998) has appeared to Americans in comic books (see entry under 1930s—Print Culture in volume 2), novels, television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) shows, and movies. Americans identify with Batman because he is one of them—a self-trained man from the mythical Gotham City with no superpowers and very visible human problems. Batman's humanity has helped make him one of the most universally appealing American comic heroes.
Comic-book readers soon learned that Batman was the alter ego of millionaire Bruce Wayne. As a child, Wayne had witnessed his wealthy parents' murder in a street holdup. From that moment forward, Bruce Wayne dedicated himself to fighting crime. Kane's original Batman was a ruthless, unscrupulous vigilante—a man who would go outside the law to bring evil-doers to justice, sometimes even going so far, in his earliest adventures, as to shoot them himself. Throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, a number of different artists and writers worked on various Batman series, resulting in several new characters becoming a regular part of the continuing saga. These characters, nearly equally well known in popular culture, included sidekick Robin (an orphaned circus acrobat whom Wayne adopted), Alfred (Wayne's loyal butler, who, aside from Robin, was the only one who knew of Wayne's double identity), and the villains the Joker, Two-Face, and the Penguin.
In 1966, the dark and mysterious Batman took a different turn when ABC introduced the Batman TV series. The show, starring Adam West (1928–) as Batman, was intentionally over-acted. The show made fun of the seriousness of the comic-book series, but was for a brief time very popular. The show was so popular, in fact, that it inspired the creation of Batman paraphernalia—lunch boxes, toys, and clothing were eagerly purchased by and for kids. The series came to an end in 1968, but many people still first think of the show when they think of Batman.
Since the debut of the TV show, the Batman character has appeared in many different mediums. The comic-book line has continued, with new artists and writers pursuing different approaches to the character, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Perhaps the most notable of these efforts was the 1986 graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller (1957–). The four-part novel returned Batman to his dark and sinister roots. In addition, four high-profile, feature-length Batman films were released from 1989 to 1997. (Also, a movie based on the TV show was released in 1966 and an animated film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, came out in 1993.)
Because he is symbolic of both America's problems with violence and crime and of American idealism, representing the dark side that lies in each and every person, Batman will likely always retain his place in popular culture.
—Robert C. Sickels
For More Information
Barrier, Michael, and Martin Williams, eds. A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics. New York: Smithsonian Institution Press and Harry Abrams, Inc., 1981.
Burton, Tim, director. Batman (video). Warner Brothers/Warner Home Video, 1989.
DC Comics.http://www.dccomics.com (accessed February 11, 2002).
Jourdain, William F. The Golden Age Batman.http://www.goldenagebatman.com/enter.html (accessed February 11, 2002).
Miller, Frank. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. New York: DC Comics/Warner Books, 1986.
Pearson, Robert E., and William Uricchio, eds. The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media. New York: Routledge, 1991.
West, Adam, with Jeff Rovin. Back to the Batcave. New York: Berkley Books, 1994.