For more than seven decades, Batman has remained an iconic character in the DC comic book universe, encompassing comic books, video games, toys, films and television shows. When The Dark Knight was released in 2008, it became one of the most popular films ever recorded, and popularity of the character has never been higher. Yet, the character that we know today as Batman has undergone major changes throughout his life in print, with periods of wild popularity and steep challenges since his first appearance in 1939.
Part One: Origin Stories
Over the course of the 1930s, the popularity of comic strips rose, fueled by a national appetite for crime, sex and violence in the highly visual stories. In 1934, a man named Max Charlie Gaines found work with Eastern Color Printing, which had been printing comics in newspapers since the late 1920s. He realized that the printing machines could churn out dedicated pamphlets that could be sold on their own. The comic book was born. He, along with fellow pioneer Jack Leibowitz, founded All-American Publications, which helped to set the standard for what we think of comic books today. Leibowitz, in addition to founding All-American Publications, also helped to found National Allied Publications, a company that would help shape the comic book industry at its core. Over the next couple of years, comic books encompassed stories of nearly every genre, and exploded in popularity while often running afoul of local censors, who sought to eliminate indecent content from the public.
The game changed when two friends, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster entered the scene. Graduating from Glenville High School in 1934, they entered the art industry, working at various jobs before creating several incarnations of Superman before publishing their first stories with the iconic superhero in Action Comics#1 in June of 1938.
Numerous comic book lines were put together throughout the thirties. Detective Comics was an imprint put together by Vin Sullivan under National Allied Publications in 1937, an anthology of sorts of various comic book stories within a single genre. Following the success of Detective Comics, Sullivan put together Action Comics, with the intention of a release in 1938. At the same time, Siegel and Shuster’s character caught the eyes of Action Comic’s editors, and Superman was put into the first issue. For a check for $130, the pair signed away their rights to Superman.
Superman became a growing success in America, doubling sales for the books. Gaines, thrilled with the profitability of the character, gave the character his own book in 1939. Comics were big, and the public demanded more.
With the successes of Superman in 1938, Vin Sullivan began looking for a follow-up hero to fill the cover for his Detective Comics line. While looking, he went to up and comic book artist Bob Kane in 1939, looking for a new hero to fill the appetites of the public. Kane went and collaborated with Bill Finger, a comic book writer to create a new hero. Early versions of this character saw a small mask, red tights and a pair of wings. Collaborating with Finger, the character changed to include a cowl rather than a mask, with a cape and a black and grey outfit, rather than red, with a bat symbol on his chest. The Bat-Man was born.
Drawing on the influence of characters such as Zorro, Sherlock Holmes and Doc Savage, Kane had worked on various designs and doodles throughout the 1930s. The request from National Publications was his first big break. The comic was approved for a monthly feature, and Kane was able to negotiate a deal that allowed him to retain credit and control over the character. While he did this, he left Bill Finger out of the deal, who would work on the comic for years without credit, in addition to the other numerous ghost writers who contributed to the project.
In the May of 1939, Detective Comics #27 was released with the words: “In this issue: The Unique and Amazing Adventures of the Batman!”, featuring Kane and Finger’s creation swooping across the cover, pulling a villain into the air while two shady men watched from the foreground, one of them brandishing a gun. The book was a success, and more stories were ordered for the character. It sold for ten cents.
The fabled origin story for Batman came later that year, in November, with Detective Comics #33. Socialite Bruce Wayne, traumatized by the murder of his parents as a child, dons the symbolic mask and persona and vows to destroy the criminal underclass. Batman provided the ultimate balance to the invulnerable Superman character. As Gerard Jones noted in his history, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, that “Bill Finger was the first to bring a novelist’s questions to bear on a superhero. Why would a man choose such a life?” Batman was a character that outgrew his status as a knockoff of the Man of Steel, eventually becoming something far greater.
Part Two: The Golden Years
Following their explosive debut in the 1930s, comic books became all the rage for young kids throughout America. Success stories such as Superman began a craze in superheroes, with Batman created just a year after, in 1939, by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger. Batman became a rapid success on newsstands, and brought something new and exciting to the infant superhero genre. The popularity of the Caped Crusader grew from the character’s launch in Detective Comics #27 in May of 1939, and as the demand for more pages increased, Kane hired on additional artists and writers to help. One writer, Jerry Robinson, began with the third issue and incorporated further cultural influences into the comic strip: German Expressionism and the work of filmmaker Fritz Lang. Robinson also invented one of Batman’s iconic villains, the Joker, as well as his sidekick, Robin. The character’s popularity continued to soar, and by 1940 Batman had his own comic.
Alongside Superman, Batman was one of the cornerstones of National Comics with Action Comics and Detective Comics. The first Batman title was not only remarkable for introducing us to two iconic villains in Catwoman and the Joker, but also because it resulted in the Dark Knight’s trademark “no gun” rule: in subsequent issues, Batman refuses to kill or use firearms, and the overall tone of the comic softened somewhat. Over the course of the Second World War, new familiar characters and features were created, including The Scarecrow, The Penguin, Harvey Dent, and the Batmobile, amongst others. In 1952, Batman even teamed up with Superman for the first time, in Superman #76.
The post-war years, however, were not good for the comic book industry. Writers and artists, who had essentially been given free reign over their content in the early years (with sex and violence, as it does now, helping to shift comics off the shelves and into readers’ hands), came under more intense scrutiny than they ever had before. Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent helped to carry a tide of criticism against the industry in 1954, leading to Congressional hearings over the conduct of the industry.
In particular, Wertham targeted National/DC Comics flagship superheroes: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, insisting that the Batman character in particular was represented as engaging in a homoerotic relationship with his protégé, Robin. Wertham attacked this relationship, along with other elements that he saw as being unfit for kids, arguing that such material would lead to a generation of psychologically damaged children. What he ignored was the value of true artistic expression that comic book creators put out through their works.
However misguided Wertham’s motives and “research,” he helped to solidify opposition to the industry in the heart of the American public. In light of such opposition, comic book creators organized into a self-regulating trade organization in 1954, calling themselves the Comics Magazine Association of America, where they opted to adopt a code of standards for each comic that members produced: the strictly-enforced Comics Code Authority. Amongst some of the provisions adopted by the CMAA was that governmental officials were never to be portrayed in an unflattering light, no explicit crimes, violence or other questionable materials would be used, and the words “terror” and “horror” could not be used in comic book titles. At the same time, zombies, vampires, werewolves and other assorted supernatural and horror-related beings were banned entirely.
The result was drastic. Two years later, the industry shrunk to half of what it was just a couple of years prior. In this environment, the Batman comics were significantly altered in their tone and style in light of the restrictions placed upon the character. Science fiction was added in as an element, and the creators diversified the Caped Crusader a bit going into the 1960s, when Batman became a member of the Justice League of America.
1964 saw falling sales for the character, and there were plans to kill off Bruce Wayne and his alter ego altogether, when a new editor came in: Julius Schwartz, who unleashed a series of major changes. From Detective Comics #327 in May of 1964, a new artist, Carmine Infantino overhauled the character, giving the Batman a new, contemporary look as Bob Kane eased his way out.
1966 brought in a television show, increasing the popularity of the character. The series, with a playful sense of camp, came to the airwaves following the popularity of similar shows, such as The Amazing Adventures of Superman. Running for three seasons and a hundred and twenty episodes, actors Adam West and Burt Ward portrayed the Caped Crusader and his sidekick, Robin as they aided the Gotham City police and mayor against super-villains twice a week. As the initial rush of Bat-mania faded and ratings declined, ABC decide to cancel the show, and while rival network NBC offered to pick it up, the sets had been torn down and plans for a revival were scrapped. Furthermore, though the comics had been boosted by the television show, sales went into decline after its cancellation.
With the cancellation of the series, writers worked to distance themselves from the lighthearted nature of the show, going back to the roots of the character as originally envisioned by its creators. Throughout the 1970s, Batman became a darker figure once again, but the comic sales continued to decline. During this period, Batman co-creator Bill Finger passed away. Finger, who had crafted Kane’s original ideas into the character that we know today has never officially been recognized as a co-creator of the character, due to the contracts that Kane had signed in the 1930s. Twenty years after his death, in 1994, he was inducted into the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame, and into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame five years later, finally gaining some measure of recognition for his accomplishments.
In spite of the darker image and grittier storylines, by 1985, Batman sales hit an all-time low, but that was all about to change….
Part Three: Resurgence and Hollywood
In 1986, sales of Batman were reinvigorated with the introduction of Frank Miller’s limited series, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, a successful comic run that saw a resurgence of interest in the character, and which remains a cornerstone of the character’s mythology.
Miller stayed on with the comic for the next couple of years, writing Batman: Year One, in 1987, while comic book author Alan Moore brought out Batman: The Killing Joke, one of the most influential Batman comics to date in 1988. The dark run of stories fit with Kane’s character, and the commercial success helped to influence the creation of a film adaptation.
In 1989, director Tim Burton memorably adapted the character to film in Batman. The movie, heavily advertised and merchandised, went on to become a major hit, starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Burton’s Batman would go on to gross hundreds of millions after a summer of intense merchandising and broken box office records, and the success of the film sparked a resurgence of interest in Batman comics and the comic book industry as a whole.
Burton followed up with Batman Returns in 1992; Keaton returned to portray the title character, with Danny DeVito starring as The Penguin, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. The film, which was considered darker than the original, was successful, though not to the same degree as its predecessor. At the same time in 1992, a new television show, Batman: The Animated Series, received both popular and critical applause, running through 1995.
Desiring a more family-friendly adventure with the Caped Crusader, Warner Brothers went in a new direction in 1995, bringing on Joel Schumacher to direct the third motion picture film, Batman Forever. Val Kilmer was brought in as Batman, while Tommy Lee Jones took on the role of Two-Face, and with Jim Carrey as The Riddler. Chris O’Donnell starred as Dick Grayson, aka, Robin. While the film was considered a financial success, it lacked the critical appeal that distinguished the first two films. Nevertheless, a sequel was commissioned right away, with Joel Schumacher returning in the director’s spot.
Released in 1997, Batman & Robin starred George Clooney as the titular character, with Chris O’Donnell reprising his role as Robin, and with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy and Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl. With its release, Batman & Robin was critically panned and underperformed at the box office, and a fifth film, Batman Triumphant, was cancelled. Just a year later, Bob Kane passed away in 1998, and Vin Sullivan, who gave Superman and Batman their start in the 1930s, died in 1999.
In 2005, Warner Brothers decided to reboot the Batman film franchise, bringing on director Christopher Nolan to create a cinematic origin story for the Caped Crusader. Nolan’s Batman Begins hit theaters, with a realistic and dark tone inspired by the 1980s comics, helping to reinvigorating the franchise. Actor Christian Bale stepped up to take on the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, with Liam Neeson as Ra’s Al Ghul and Cillian Murphy as The Scarecrow.
Batman Begins was a critical and financial success, and sparked a sequel in 2008, when Nolan followed up with The Dark Knight, one of the most successful films ever to be released. Bale returned as Batman, with actor Heath Ledger taking on the role of The Joker, and Aaron Eckhart becoming Harvey Dent/Two Face. Following the completion of filming, Ledger died of an accidental overdose, prompting a flurry of publicity and additional interest in the film, which received eight Academy Award nominations, eventually walking away with Best Supporting Actor (for Ledger) and Best Sound Editing. The character will return to theaters in 2012 with Nolan’s much-anticipated The Dark Knight Returns.
The history of Batman is an fascinating one, one that has impacted all facets of the comic book industry and American popular culture while entertaining millions of fans around the world. Batman became a character that outgrew his originally intended role as an imitation Superman, becoming a true icon of the superhero genre in his own right. The Caped Crusader has more than earned his iconic status, fighting his way through the crowded world of comics and all the drastic highs and lows that have characterized the 72 years since his creation. Clearly, the story of Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego is here to stay, represented and retold in myriad forms and media, from the merchandising brought on by the films to the comic books that have remained in print for over seven decades. Undoubtedly, we will see far more from Batman in the coming years as he continues in his role as The Dark Knight, waiting to fight crime when Gotham City is in of most need of him.
Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer, historian and longtime science fiction fan. He currently holds a master’s degree in Military History from Norwich University, and has written for SF Signal and io9, as well as for his personal site, Worlds in a Grain of Sand. He currently lives in the green (or white, for most of the year) mountains of Vermont with a growing library of books and a girlfriend who tolerates them.