It’s Batman! America’s tragic hero turns 85 | WORLD
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America’s tragic hero

TRENDING | A look back at Batman’s 85-year journey from Gotham’s shadows into the world’s spotlight

Illustration by Orlando Arocena

America’s tragic hero
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ISSUE 27 OF Detective Comics arrived on newsstands in the spring of 1939 with a cover promising “amazing and unique adventures of THE BATMAN!”—the newest character from what was then called National Comics. Batman appeared in only six of the comic book’s 64 pages, and no one at National, including creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger, could have guessed the character would become a cultural juggernaut.

This spring marks the 85th anniversary of Batman’s debut, but many of his signature features showed up in that first adventure. The young socialite Bruce Wayne hears about a case of murder and industrial espionage while visiting his friend Commissioner Gordon. Soon Batman is on the case, and we first glimpse him in his costume looming over two criminals with the full moon glowing behind him. The pointy ears, the blue-black cowl and cape, the gray tights, and the yellow utility belt—they’re all there from the beginning. And a few issues later, readers get the hero’s familiar backstory featuring murdered parents and a young boy’s oath to wage war on all criminals.

What might not seem familiar, especially for fans who grew up on Adam West’s campy TV series from the 1960s, is that this Batman is a remorseless killer.

The first pages of the 1939 comic.

The first pages of the 1939 comic. Christopher Borrelli/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Gotham City’s defender, who started life as a cheap knockoff of the popular radio vigilante the Shadow, was right at home in Detective Comics, which drew its inspiration from the noir crime fiction of the 1930s. The comic featured gritty urban settings where morally ambiguous heroes fought tough-guy mobsters with nicknames like “Slick” and “Gloves.” In his first fight, Batman throws a criminal from a rooftop, and he dispatches about two dozen others in his first year. He’s also not above using a gun from time to time, a taboo for later incarnations of the character.

In the 1950s, a moral panic swept through America as parents worried about the violence children saw in comic books, and publishers began abandoning horror and gore. But long before the comics industry began self-censoring in 1954 under the Comics Code Authority, Batman had made his transition from a loner vigilante to a more kid-friendly superhero.

Kane and Finger had envisioned Batman as the world’s greatest detective, and just as Sherlock had Watson, Batman needed a sidekick—a stand-in for the audience who enables the detective to explain the clues aloud. Kane and Finger thought the best sidekick for Batman would need to be young, someone their child readers could identify with. Thus was born Robin, the Boy Wonder. Giving Batman charge of a child prompted the editors to dial back the comic’s gloom and peril, and the stories started to involve theft and robbery rather than murder.

Burt Ward and Adam West in the 1960s TV series.

Burt Ward and Adam West in the 1960s TV series. Allstar Picture Library Limited/Alamy

Batman’s iconic logo is ubiquitous today, but as the zeitgeist of postwar America shifted, the character fell into irrelevance and his comics came close to cancellation. Batman and Robin gave up detective work and found themselves involved in fantastic adventures involving time travel and space exploration, tropes meant to appeal to a new generation of youngsters. The changes didn’t help because youngsters weren’t reading comics anymore. They were watching TV.

Then in 1966 Adam West donned a gray bodysuit and satin blue trunks to dance the Batusi on the Batman TV series, and the Caped Crusader became a cultural phenomenon. The show was pure camp, but for the first time in the character’s three decades everyone in the country knew who he was.

Batman’s true fans hated it.

Both comics readers and creators reacted savagely to the TV series, finding its lack of seriousness an affront. National Comics, which in 1977 changed its name to DC Comics, pushed the character in a darker direction. Over the next 30 years, the Batman of the comics went through multiple phases—becoming psy­chologically conflicted, becoming an omnicompetent master tactician, becoming the paterfamilias of an extended Bat family—but all these incarnations tended toward a brooding self-seriousness.

The show was pure camp, but for the first time in the character’s three decades everyone in the country knew who he was. Batman’s true fans hated it.

The publication of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 proved to be a watershed moment for Batman. The four-issue New York Times-bestselling series follows the adventures of a middle-aged Batman who comes out of retirement to clean up a Gotham City once again overrun with crime. In the comic, Miller serves up libertarian satire aimed at America’s mainstream media, but few noticed because the story’s bone-crunching brutality drowns out all other themes. This is a Batman whose propensity toward violence outstrips anything from the noir stories of 1939.

This dark avatar of vengeance was precisely what the die-hard fans had been waiting for, but the general public took notice too, probably because Miller’s version was so different from Adam West’s TV Batman. Even so, it wasn’t until the Dark Knight made his transition from print to silver screen that Batman became one of the world’s most popular and profitable superheroes.

Fifty years after Detective Comics No. 27 debuted, Tim Burton’s Batman arrived in theaters, breaking the record for opening weekend box-office receipts. It also became the fastest movie up to that time to reach $100 million. Die-hard fans initially had their doubts about Michael Keaton as Batman, but Burton managed to win them over with his dark loner. Batman and Burton’s sequel Batman Returns (1992) had enough camp to appeal to wider audiences, too. Subsequent sequels didn’t strive for the same balance, abandoning the dark elements and doubling down on the fun, and the franchise foundered. On the small screen, however, the 1990s also gave us Batman: The Animated Series, a pared-down art-deco-inspired adaptation that’s probably the best interpretation of the hero.

Michael Keaton in Batman Returns.

Michael Keaton in Batman Returns. Universal Images Group North America LLC/Alamy

In the new millennium, die-hard fans and creators have been more open to embracing Batman’s multiplicity. Most films lean into the darker aspects of the character. Christopher Nolan (Dark Knight Trilogy) emphasized the character’s practical brutality; Zach Snyder (Batman v Superman and Justice League) made him the brooding tactician; and Matt Reeves (The Batman) resurrected the original version of Batman as careful detective. But Will Arnett’s irony-laden LEGO Batman is just as beloved, and even Adam West’s version has been reclaimed by the fan base.

What accounts for Batman’s current popularity? Many people claim he’s more relatable because he’s one of the only superheroes without superpowers. He’s just a regular guy—with a billion dollars—who’s dedicated to making the world a better place. We can all see a little of ourselves in Batman. And just like Batman, each human heart contains depths of conflicting emotions. We all contain both the brooding Frank Miller and the campy Adam West.

I think there’s a theological truth embedded in the relatability of Batman. The character is often depicted as the epitome of rationality, a theme underscored by his rogues’ gallery of the criminally insane. Many Church Fathers claimed it’s our rationality that marks us as bearers of God’s image. But there’s a crack in Batman’s rationality that drives him to adopt a dark persona in his war against the forces of darkness. Batman, like every other human being, is a tragic figure.

Christopher Nolan’s Commissioner Gordon calls Batman “the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.” It’s a cryptic line, referring to Batman’s decision to preserve the city’s image of its fallen district attorney, but it aptly sums up our human condition. The world is full of dark violence, and sometimes the forces of justice must resort to violence to restrain even greater evil. We might wish for something better, but apart from grace, Batman, who’s just like us, is as good as it gets.

Collin Garbarino

Collin is WORLD’s arts and culture editor. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Louisiana State University and resides with his wife and four children in Sugar Land, Texas.



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