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Batman Family #17 © 1978 DC Comics. COVER ART BY MICHAEL KALUTA.

Creature of the night. Caped cubmaster. Quipping crime fighter. Masked detective. Vengeful vigilante. At various times throughout his illustrious career, Batman has been all of the above, adapting to shifting social climes while enduring as one of the most recognizable pop-culture icons ever.

Cartoonist Bob Kane compensated for his limited artistic talent with his uninhibited imagination—and unabashed mimicry. Inspired by a host of influences—Leonardo da Vinci's ornithopter design, Douglas Fairbanks' swashbuckling outing in The Mask of Zorro (1920), and pulp heroes the Shadow and the Spider, among others—Kane sketched a black-masked, red-costumed bat-man, an image refined by recommendations from his silent partner, writer Bill Finger, into the black-and-grey version of the hero soon to become famous as Batman. While Kane, to this day, remains the sole credited creator of Batman, Finger's contributions cannot be overlooked. By his own admission, Kane offered the look of the dark prowler, but Finger provided the story.

The origin of DC Comics' Batman (which wasn't revealed to readers until the character's seventh appearance) is a now-familiar fable rooted in tragedy. As prosperous physician Thomas Wayne, his social butterfly wife Martha, and their young son Bruce exit a Gotham City movie house after a nighttime showing of The Mark of Zorro, they are robbed by a thief brandishing a pistol. Dr. Wayne valiantly attempts to protect his wife, but the panicky gunman murders the adult Waynes as their grief-stricken son watches. The lad dedicates his very existence to avenging his parents' murders by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals. After years of training his mind and body to perfection, Wayne, having inherited his father's millions, mulls over a crime-fighting disguise that will terrorize lawbreakers. A bat flaps through an open window, and Wayne deems it an omen. The origin's end caption heralds, And thus is born this weird avenger of the dark this avenger of evil. The Batman.

Premiering in May 1939 in Detective Comics #27, the Batman became a sudden sensation. In his earliest adventures, Batman (alternately called Bat-Man until the hyphen was dropped for consistency) was quite brutal: He tossed a thug off of a rooftop and executed a vampire by shooting him with a silver bullet. Batman's violent methods earned him an enemy: police commissioner James Gordon. Gordon, a mainstay of Batman's mythos since the character's very first story, sicced the Gotham Police Department on this peculiar winged troublemaker, until later forming an uneasy alliance with the Batman after it became obvious they were playing on the same team.

As Batman's acclaim swelled, the character's publisher recoiled, fearful that the sinister elements in the comic book would be emulated by its young audience. DC eliminated Batman's use of firearms and extreme force—never again would Batman take a life. Just under a year after the hero's debut, DC softened him even more in Detective #38 (April 1940) by introducing Robin the Boy Wonder. Robin—actually Dick Grayson, a circus aerialist—observes the mob-ordered murder of his parents and becomes the ward of a sympathetic Wayne, who trains the lad as his crime-fighting ally. Detective's sales briskly escalated with Robin's inclusion. The Boy Wonder, exuberant and wisecracking, had a profound influence on the brooding Batman. The former weird avenger stepped smoothly into the role of father figure.

While maintaining the lead spot in Detective, Batman was awarded his own title in the spring of 1940, with artists Jerry Robinson and Sheldon Moldoff signing on to help illustrate the additional material (but never signing their stories, due to Kane's creator's deal). Batman #1 introduced two villains who would become integral components of the character's history: the sneering clown prince of crime, the Joker, and the sultry princess of plunder, the Catwoman (although she was called The Cat during her initial appearance). Batman and Robin were soon challenged by a growing contingent of odd antagonists: The frightful Scarecrow, the larcenous Penguin, and the puzzling Riddler were just some of the rogues who repeatedly took on this Dynamic Duo. When not battling their bizarre rogues' gallery, Batman and Robin were mopping up mobsters or unearthing clues to crimes in mysteries that challenged the reader to play along as armchair detectives.

Batman and Robin's synchronized acrobatics and deductive mastery dazzled readers, as did their arsenal: They each sported utility belts containing the tools of their trade, including Batarangs (bat-winged boomerangs), Bat-ropes (for climbing and swinging), microcameras and tape recorders, gas pellets, acetylene torches, bolas, respirators, first-aid kits, penlights, and Bat-cuffs. For transportation, the Dynamic Duo hit the streets in their Batmobile, the skies in their Batplane, and the sea in their Batboat, an armada warehoused in the secret Batcave beneath the hero's grand home, Wayne Manor. By 1942, Commissioner Gordon—in a full reversal from the days when he ordered his officers to fire upon the Batman—was summoning the hero into action by illuminating the nighttime skies of Gotham City with the Bat-signal.

The Dynamic Duo's burgeoning popularity could not be contained in two magazines alone. They soon appeared in DC's World's Best (later World's Finest) Comics, and in 1943 swung into their own newspaper strip, a medium in which they encountered their first defeat—at the hands of a hero who would soon be their ally, Superman. Many newspapers declined to carry the Batman daily and Sunday strips since they were already running the Superman feature, cutting short Batman and Robin's first excursion into the funnypapers after a mere two years. Nonetheless, Batman didn't hold a grudge: He and Robin guest starred on several episodes of the radio program The Adventures of Superman in the mid-1940s.

Straying even further from Batman's grim roots, DC introduced a comic-relief character in Batman #16 (1943): a gentleman's gentleman named Alfred Pennyworth. The son of the butler of Bruce Wayne's father, Alfred surprised Wayne and Grayson by showing up on their doorstep—and surprised them even more when he discovered their Batman and Robin guises. The humorous element was quickly abandoned and Alfred became the Dynamic Duo's valuable and trusted aide.

Unlike DC's and Marvel Comics' patriotic paragons, Superman and Captain America, Batman did very little for the war effort in the 1940s other than hawk bonds on his covers. Flag waving and Nazi bashing were not his forte—he and Robin invested their energies in keeping American citizens safe at home. In addition to their comics appearances, they segued into movie theaters in two serials, Batman (1943) and The New Adventures of Batman and Robin (1949).

As most superheroes were put out to pasture after World War II, Batman was one of three DC Comics characters to maintain his own series, the others being Superman and Wonder Woman. Survivors Superman and Batman even joined forces as Your Two Favorite Heroes—Together in the pages of World's Finest. Despite Batman's resiliency (and the emergence of popular artist Dick Sprang, whose interpretation of the Joker remains one of the classic renditions of the character), the 1950s were unkind to the cowled crime fighter and his sidekick. The science-fiction craze that mushroomed out of the atomic age injected concepts into the Batman comic books ill-suited to their street-level milieu: Time travel, mutations of Batman and Robin, invading aliens, and giant insects were common themes.

The biggest threat facing Batman and Robin in the 1950s, however, was real-life psychiatrist Fredric Wertham. In his scathing book Seduction of the Innocent (1954), Dr. Wertham charged that the comic-book industry was morally corrupting its impressionable young readers, impeaching Batman and Robin in particular for flaunting a gay lifestyle. Wertham wrote, They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler. It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together. Granted, our hero didn't have much luck with women—Wayne zipped through a throng of beauties like Julie Madison, Vicki Vale, and Kathy Kane, and Batman was tantalized by femme fatale Catwoman and, on a couple of instances, even Superman's girlfriend, Lois Lane—but if DC's writers and editors intended the Dynamic Duo's relationship as a gay metaphor, it's a secret that has remained closeted. In response to Wertham's damaging allegations and ensuing parental and U.S. Senate criticism, DC Comics built a wholesome Batman Family with the Caped Crusader as its pointy-eared patriarch. Soon Batman and Robin were joined by Batwoman and Ace the Bat-Hound, as well as Bat-Girl and even the magical imp Bat-Mite. Batman's ghoulish adversaries were either neutered or discarded from the series. For years, DC produced a kinder, gentler Batman—and readers defected. Batman and Detective Comics were on the brink of cancellation.

Editor Julius Julie Schwartz, who launched the Silver Age of comics (1956–1969) through his renovations of Golden Age (1938–1954) favorites the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Justice Society of America (reworked in 1960 as the Justice League, a team that counted Batman among its eminent roster), was tapped by DC to work his magic on Batman. Enter the New Look era in 1964: Schwartz updated the appearance of the hero by adding a yellow oval to Batman's chest insignia; hired Flash illustrator Carmine Infantino to modernize the artwork; evicted the codependent Batman Family, except for Robin; and excised the silly sci-fi gimmickry that had strangled the character for more than ten years. Detective mysteries became the norm, Batman's rogues' gallery reappeared (with new additions like Blockbuster), and Robin was franchised out for membership in a junior Justice League called the Teen Titans. The only bad call Schwartz made was the elimination of Alfred: Batman's butler died in 1964 and was replaced by Grayson's Aunt Harriet, Schwartz's volley to counter Wertham's contentions of a decade earlier, but that decision was soon reversed and Alfred was resurrected.

On January 12, 1966, ABC premiered a live-action Batman television series starring handsome Adam West as a swaggering Batman/Wayne and unseasoned newcomer Burt Ward as an effervescent Robin/Grayson. Batman bubbled with flashy costumes and sets (at a time when color television was relatively new), pop-art sound-effect graphics (Pow! Zowie!), a surfin' soundtrack by Neal Hefti, and guest appearances by popular celebrities as villains. The show's flamboyant action enthralled kids, while its campy humor amused their parents. Batman, which aired twice a week (the first night's cliff-hanger would be resolved tomorrow night, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel, as the narrator promised), was not only an immediate hit, it birthed a national phenomenon. America went Bat crazy: West as Batman appeared on major magazine covers including Life and TV Guide, Ward as Robin became a teen heartthrob, an unprecedented wave of Bat-merchandise was sold to boys and girls, the Batman newspaper strip resumed, and a theatrical movie was churned out for the summer of 1966. DC plastered Batman on as many comics as possible—the hero usurped Justice League and World's Finest covers from his partners, and Batman team-ups took over the title The Brave and the Bold. The entire genre of superheroes benefited from this Batmania, with costumed crime fighters new and old taking over the airwaves, comics racks, and toy shelves for a few years. ABC's Batman returned for two more seasons, but ratings sagged each year (despite the introduction of Yvonne Craig in season three as Batgirl, a character also inserted into the comics), and the show was axed in 1968, although Batman segued to Saturday-morning television in September 1968 as part of the animated The Batman/Superman Hour.

The inflated comic-book sales DC enjoyed from the television show's hit status quickly deflated once it left the air. Batman needed another shot in the arm. Artist Neal Adams' photo-realistic illustrations and experimental layouts on the Deadman series in DC's Strange Adventures had made him comics' it boy. With the Batman/Deadman pairing in The Brave and the Bold #79 (1968), Adams began a stint on that team-up title that would, with each issue, revitalize the look of Batman: the hero's batears began to grow longer, his brow became more menacingly furrowed, his cape engulfed comics panels like flowing batwings, and his escapades always took place at night—even when scripter Bob Haney called for a daytime scene! Adams took it upon himself to restore Batman to his roots as a foreboding nocturnal force—he was the Batman again. Editor Schwartz noticed, and recruited Adams to the main Bat-titles.

Other changes were transpiring at the same time: In late 1969, Dick Grayson left home for college (and his own adventures as Robin the Teen Wonder), and Wayne and Alfred temporarily boarded up the mansion and relocated into a highrise in the heart of Gotham. New and frightening foes like Man-Bat and Ra's al Ghul appeared, Two-Face returned from limbo, and the Joker was transformed from a clownish buffoon into a homicidal maniac. Throughout the 1970s, writers like Dennis O'Neil, Steve Englehart, and Len Wein, and dynamic artists including Adams, Dick Giordano, and Marshall Rogers produced gothic, atmospheric masterpieces that are still lauded by readers over thirty years later. Batman overcame a sales slump in the early 1970s and was again being exploited by DC by the mid-1970s: The Joker, Man-Bat, and The Batman Family joined DC's lineup. Batman's romantic life became a captivating soap opera; Batman cavorted with Talia, the vivacious but villainous daughter of his new foe al Ghul, and Wayne fell in love with the natty Silver St. Cloud, who actually deduced his dual identity by recognizing Bruce's chin in the Batmask. While Batman was the Darknight Detective in DC's comics, television wouldn't allow the light-hearted interpretation of the hero to die: Witness ABC's kid-friendly Super Friends (beginning in 1973 and running, in various incarnations, until the mid-1980s) and CBS's The New Adventures of Batman (1977, featuring the voices of West and Ward). A puffy West and Ward even donned their colorful costumes once again in 1978 for a pair of campy one-hour television specials called Legends of the Super-Heroes (also featuring the Flash, Green Lantern, the Riddler, and other good and bad guys).

This didn't faze DC's comic-book Batman, however. In the 1980s, his comics explored grimmer themes: Batman became a vampire, blew off his Justice League pals and formed the Outsiders, and encountered freakish new villains like the bone-crushing Killer Croc. By 1984, Grayson had hung up his red Robin tunic to become Nightwing, and troubled teen Jason Todd was introduced as the new—and rebellious—Boy Wonder. Batman's most influential moment of the decade occurred with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986), a four-issue miniseries by writer/artist Frank Miller and inker Klaus Janson. Set in the near future, Dark Knight portrayed a grizzled, booze-addled Bruce Wayne crawling out of retirement to restore order to a chaotic Gotham as the Batman. Miller's gritty take on Batman established a template for other writers and artists to follow. Batman comics grew somber, and sometimes graphically startling: The manic Joker debased and nearly killed Commissioner Gordon and Batgirl in Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), and did kill the new Robin—echoing reader demand from a phone-in contest—in Batman #428 (1988). A new Robin, Tim Drake, entered the canon the following year, as did another Tim, real-life movie director Tim Burton.

Burton, a wild-haired, cartoonish figure himself, was fascinated by fantasy: His earliest cinematic efforts included Frankenweenie (1984) and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985). So when he took on the project of bringing Batman to the big screen, comics fans were thrilled until they learned of his casting choice. Michael Keaton, a quirky actor slight of build and best known for comedy roles in Mr. Mom (1983) and Burton's own Beetlejuice (1988), was chosen by the director to play Wayne and Batman. A delegation of comics fans demanded Keaton's removal from the project. Burton was convinced, however, that the wild look in Keaton's eyes would give him the edge to portray the obsessed hero. Box-office receipts proved him right: Batman (1989), which included Jack Nicholson as the Joker and Kim Basinger as love interest Vicki Vale, was the year's megahit, spawning a wave of Bat-merchandise the likes of which had not been seen since 1966.

1992 was Batman's next pivotal year. Burton and Keaton were back in theaters with Batman Returns, inspiring a television cartoon spinoff that fall: the noir-ish Batman: The Animated Series. In the comics, a brutish crime lord called Bane deposed Gotham's guardian by snapping Batman's spine and triumphantly pitching him off a rooftop. During his convalescence, Wayne was replaced by a psychotically violent surrogate Batman named Jean Paul Valley (a.k.a. Azrael). Once healed, the true Batman overcame Valley and resumed the mantle of the Bat. Even the leveling of Gotham City by an earthquake in DC's serialized storyline No Man's Land (1999) could not stop the hero. Bolstered by a convoy of comic-book titles and specials, a perennial line of action figures (more than one hundred variations of Batman figures have been produced since the 1990s), an enduring television presence (the 1966 Batman series airs weekly on TV Land in 2004), and Batman: The Animated Series continued for years, inspiring the futuristic Batman Beyond and the superteam Justice League cartoon shows), and live-action movies (Val Kilmer and George Clooney played Batman in two additional film sequels, and Warner Bros. is aggressively developing a reintroduction of the Batman film franchise), the Dark Knight shows no signs of age.

Since his 1939 debut, Batman has repeatedly proved that while he may suffer setbacks, he is undefeatable. He represents our fears, and inspires us to conquer them. And he will inevitably continue to do so for decades to come. —ME

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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